When the 20th Amendment was ratified in 1933, it was hailed as a means of doing away with the excesses of lame-duck sessions and making Congress more responsible to voters. Its authors hadn’t counted on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The 2010 midterm election was a historic repudiation of the current congressional agenda, but the House and Senate leadership is intent on ramming through as much additional legislation as possible in their waning days of power. This includes: a $1.1 trillion, 1,924-page budget bill, which, in the tradition of other legislation from the current Congress, is intended to be voted on first and read later; repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law; the controversial New START nuclear weapons treaty; and the Dream Act, a backdoor amnesty bill for illegals. In many cases, Democratic leaders are taking up questions intentionally left for after the election because they were worried voters would hold them accountable. Now they have nothing to lose.
Congressional liberals appear unfazed by fresh evidence of public opposition. A new Gallup poll shows disapproval ratings of the Reid-Pelosi Congress at 83 percent, the highest on record. Even among Democrats, congressional approval ratings have sunk from 38 percent in October to the current 16 percent.
The responsible thing to do would be to place everything on hold and await the next Congress, as happened the last two times power changed hands on the Hill. Republican senators have been attempting to slow the Democratic steamroller, but Mr. Reid, emboldened by a stay of his political execution, has denounced efforts to delay key votes until the new Congress convenes. “If the Republicans think that because they can stall and stall and stall that we take a break we’re through - we’re not through,” he said. “Congress ends on Jan. 4.”
Extending a congressional session into January before seating a new Congress has only happened three times since the advent of the modern timeline, in 1941, 1951 and 1971. For much of the country’s history, lame-duck sessions were long, and breaks between Congresses much longer. Under the original constitutional system, Congress met up to the first week in March after an election, and unless the president called a special session, the new Congress would not sit until the following December. Changes in technology and the growth in power in Washington made that system less workable, and the 20th Amendment compressed the timeline. Since 1935, every new Congress has met in the January after an election.
One of the first orders of business in the new Congress should be to introduce an amendment to further compress the time between holding elections and implementing their results. The outgoing leadership’s last, desperate rush to force through unpopular measures - after voters repudiated them at the ballot box - is symptomatic of the institutional corruption of this Congress. Democrats are cynically gaming the system to reduce accountability and favor special interests, especially their own.
In the meantime, Republicans would do well to look into late Democratic Sen. William Proxmire’s successful two-week filibuster against funding increases for the Supersonic Transport (SST) program during the extended 1971 session. Sometimes you have to go to the mattresses.
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