- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2010

The House last week took about seven hours out of its customary August recess to come back and pass the $26 billion union bailout bill. The unusual session confirmed the well-known principle that the republic is most imperiled while Congress is in town. That’s why Rep. Tom Price, Georgia Republican, is on the right track with his resolution that would restrain federal lawmakers from meeting after the November elections until the new representatives take the oath of office in January.

Election-year lame-duck sessions of Congress have plagued the nation for generations. Eighty years ago, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch complained about such meetings, saying, “Here will assemble all manner of members, to make laws for voters who have repudiated them and all their works.” A similar concern motivates Republicans like Mr. Price, who see significant electoral gains on the horizon. If the latest Real Clear Politics polling averages hold true, the Grand Old Party will pick up six Senate seats and at least 26 House seats, with ultimate control of the body resting on another 32 races where the outcome remains too close to call.

Should voters decide to hand control of the House back to the GOP, it makes little sense to provide the old guard with one last opportunity to ram through rejected policies. Opposition to this state of affairs is more than a contemporary partisan concern. The 20th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1933 to address a similar, but far more serious problem. It adjusted the meeting dates of Congress to prevent lame-duck sessions that previously had stretched from the November election until December in the following year. The long interval between sessions made sense when travel to and from the capital was by horse and carriage and the national government envisioned for itself a far more limited role in people’s lives.

Today, the government wants to do more and more. Since the 20th Amendment took effect, there have been 17 lame-duck sessions, each lasting an average of 28 days. Most recently, the 2008 lame duck laid the $700 billion bank-bailout egg, proving that Congress uses such sessions to ram through unpopular measures without accountability. The bill proposed by Mr. Price would have members “pledge” not to meet in session following an election until the new members are sworn in. It is not clear how much more could be done without amending the Constitution.

Although Mr. Price’s idea is a good start, his bill is drafted with partisan barbs aimed at drawing attention to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s likely use of a lame-duck session to enact controversial legislation such as “cap-and-trade” and yet more stimulus bills with a majority that may not exist in January. If the Constitution needs amending, it would be better to add a balanced-budget amendment. Doing so would address the primary danger that a sitting session of Congress represents to America’s fiscal health.