- - Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Only 10 work days are scheduled for Congress between now and Election Day on Nov. 4, even though it’s almost two months on the calendar. Lawmakers setting up for a dangerous lame-duck session afterward.

The need to contact voters is a stronger lure than legislating. In its customary fashion, Congress will push most matters under the rug for now while promising to address them after the election. But don’t expect breakthroughs even then on immigration, tax reform, fixing our foreign policy, or Democrat priorities like minimum wage or so-called stimulus spending.

Expect President Obama to extract as much political theater as he can, bashing Congress for not getting its work done, and making threats and demands. But he’s constricted by the fact that vulnerable Democrats, especially senators, want to be campaigning instead of doing political heavy lifting. Congressional votes in the next few weeks will be mostly about posturing to set up campaign themes.

The immediate House agenda is being labeled as focused on jobs through reducing regulations and diminishing Obamacare’s negative impact. But even House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, makes a backhand admission that it’s not expected to become law, but rather to spotlight differences between the two parties. As Mr. McCarthy said in his agenda announcement, it’s “in order to remind Harry Reid and Senate Democrats of our positive solutions.”

Lame-duck sessions aren’t for show, though. They are dangerous times because:

* That’s when congressmen and senators feel safest from the voters, with the next round of elections two years away.

* Those who were defeated at the polls or didn’t run are focused on figuring out how they’ll next earn a paycheck.

* Everybody is distracted, including the public, by looking ahead to Thanksgiving and Christmas.

* Capitol Hill is disrupted as departing members clean out offices, those newly elected swarm in to get oriented and interview wannabe staff, and other members play musical chairs to grab better office space freed up by those who are leaving.

* “Regular order” evaporates as major business is lumped into a handful of omnibus bills managed by House and Senate leaders under fast-tracked parliamentary procedures. The process is ready-made for power brokers to sneak-in provisions that may then go unnoticed for months.

* The pressure is on because terms of office end at noon Jan. 3, 2015, for all House members and for a third of senators.

* The big measures that will dominate a lame-duck session are taxes and spending, two measures in particular.

* An omnibus appropriations bill will be a giant grab-bag of spending because the partisan deadlock has failed to get any of the annual spending bills passed, so an intended dozen spending bills get lumped together. Before that, however, the federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30, so it’s either a so-called “shutdown” of government or approval of short-term spending authority until perhaps mid-December. Mr. Obama almost certainly will make demands that certain favored programs be included in that temporary package, lest he veto it. But his leverage is weak because his fellow Democrats want to be campaigning, not stuck in Washington.

* A tax-extenders bill is the other big agenda item for the lame-duck session. Some tax provisions are commonly approved for two years at a time. This forces businesses and lobbyists to constantly stay in Congress‘ good graces, lest their “temporary” tax breaks expire. It’s a wonderful fund-raising tool for politicians and a grab-bag of special arrangements: Green energy and other crony capitalism subsidies and loans; research and development credits and deductions; special depreciation and write-off treatments for race tracks; retirement fund changes.

There is some push to end part of the extenders shell game by making some tax language permanent, such as regarding research and development incentives. But that conflicts with lawmakers’ constant efforts to seek campaign donations.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans can hit home runs between now and Nov. 4. House investigation hearings have the biggest headline potential, as they will have center stage to dig into what really happened in Benghazi, in Lois Lerner’s IRS attacks on the tea party, and behind-the-scenes at the White House and the Departments of Justice, State and Treasury.

America will breathe a sigh of relief when they get to vote on Washington’s dysfunctional and disturbing mess. The underlying danger is if the public then takes a break for the holidays, while a lame-duck session gives political insiders a last shot at doing damage.

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