Conservatives are rightly apprehensive about the prospect of yet another lame-duck congressional session after the November elections. Republican and Democratic leaders are said to be conspiring to punt on budget, economic and social policy decisions until after voters have cast their ballots. Do members of Congress worry that this makes them look incompetent and foolish? Not likely. Congressmen are like teenagers endlessly demanding still another extension for a tardy term paper.
It’s not just that they can’t get their constitutional duties done on time. It’s a common bipartisan scheme by Congress to avoid accountability. One lesson learned over the years is that a lame-duck Congress loads up deficit spending to avoid being thrown out of office and sent home to oblivion. Lame-duck spending that Congress authorizes after the November elections is especially derelict. Congress has a constitutional duty to pass a budget every year, and it can’t even do that on time. Perhaps shorter summer vacations would help.
Congressional dysfunction worsens. The Heritage Foundation finds that 9 of the last 10 Congresses have held post-election lame-duck sessions. The report reveals what congressional leaders have in mind: “Congress now increasingly relies on lame-duck sessions to conduct its regular work. This practice undermines the ability of the American people to hold their representatives accountable because it allows members to deliberately postpone unpopular decisions until after their constituents cast their votes.”
There are other problems with lame-duck sessions. Incumbents who have been voted out can cast one final vote to do bad. This can lead to easy corruption. A member of Congress who is defeated and on his way out the door can vote for a defense bill that steers money to a defense contractor for whom he will soon work. Taxes are more likely to be raised after voters have spoken. This happened in Illinois several years ago. Voters were aware that the legislature was considering a large tax increase and defeated many they suspected of leading the charge. After losing, legislators returned for a final vote and approved the tax increase voters had said loud and clear that they didn’t want. Revenge was sweet for the guilty.
It’s not quite clear why Republicans would agree to a lame-duck session this year. With Donald Trump rising in the polls, the likelihood is that Republicans will continue to control the levers of power after November. Why give defeated Democrats more votes? If Hillary Clinton wins, why enable Barack Obama to submit a menu of bad bills? No good can come of this extra-time session.
A lame-duck Congress this year could approve a Supreme Court nominee, the 2017 budget, the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership, and a tax on the internet, producing more in two weeks in November — and most of it bad — than in the previous two years.
If Congress can’t, or won’t, perform its work in the proper time, it deserves a failing grade. Demanding more time to finish the job works for Congress, but not for the rest of us. We don’t recommend that anyone try it with the Internal Revenue Service.