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Less Will Happen In The Lame Duck Than You Think

17 Apr 2012
Posted by Stan Collender

As my column from today's Roll Call explains, if you've been thinking that everything will be settled in the lame duck session of Congress that's ahead, think again...and again...and again. Would you believe that nothing will be settled?

Expect Less, Not More, in Lame-Duck Session

By Stan Collender
Roll Call Contributing Writer
April 17, 2012, Midnight

I’m always surprised that federal budget watchers learn so little from even the very recent past.

After almost two years of continuing expectations that the next budget-related opportunity is going to result in the “big deal,” we should all know and admit by now that when it comes to federal spending, revenues, the deficit and the national debt, dreams hardly ever come true.

But the steady series of dashed budget hopes since the 2010 elections — the inability of the Senate to agree to a Congressional deficit reduction commission, the abject failure of the Bowles-Simpson commission, the collapse of the anything-but-super committee and the consecutive breakdowns of the negotiations between Vice President Joseph Biden and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and then between President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — don’t seem to have changed the positive outlook about what is commonly thought of as the next opportunity: the lame-duck session of Congress.

The current fiscal wish, hope and prayer is that this is when all sides will join hands in the long-awaited budget Kumbaya moment and the deal that has been so elusive will come together.

The only problem is that there’s far more evidence pointing to nothing significant happening on the federal budget during the lame duck than to a big (or even symbolic small to medium-sized) deal.

Leave the politics of the lame duck aside for a moment and start with logistics: There simply won’t be that much time for Congress to deal with all of the big budget issues facing it after the elections. The approximately seven weeks between Election Day and the failure-of-the-hardly-super-committee-triggered sequester on Jan. 2 probably translates into no more than four weeks of workable time when you realize that Congress is not likely to return to Washington, D.C., immediately after Nov. 6, that much of at least one of the seven weeks will be devoted to organizing for next year and that there will be time away from the Capitol for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

This almost guarantees that the comprehensive tax reform package that many say is possible/likely/doable in the lame duck won’t happen. Even if there were an agreement on what that should include — and there absolutely isn’t ­— it would take longer than four to seven weeks just to draft the basic legislation, let alone debate and pass it in committee, debate and pass it in the full House and Senate, come up with a compromise agreement between the two chambers, redraft the compromise and pass the conference report. Add in the need for transition rules, which took a year to draft when the 1986 tax act was adopted, and it’s ludicrous to think that tax reform has any chance of going anywhere during the lame duck.

But the lack of time won’t be the only, or perhaps even the most important, logistical problem. As anyone who has ever been through a lame-duck session knows, rounding up votes almost always is far more difficult after an election than it is before. If past lame ducks are a guide, many of the Representatives and Senators who will not be returning to Congress next year will be more focused on getting a job, packing up their offices and moving their families than on what’s happening in their committees or being debated on the floor. At some point, the retiring and defeated Members will have to vacate their office suites so that the newly elected Members can move in, making it physically and psychologically difficult to focus on work. And, of course, the staff for the soon-to-be former Members, who do much of the substantive work, will also be actively looking for new jobs or moving and also won’t have an office to go to.

As it has in the past, this will create huge headaches for the Republican and Democratic leadership. Not only will the political imperatives have changed for Members who will not be returning next year, but the ability to discipline those who are leaving will be completely eliminated.

Add to that the strong possibility that some retiring and defeated Members may not vote at all, and it’s not hard to see why the close votes that have been typical of almost anything having to do with the budget the past few years may have to or should be avoided during the lame-duck session.

And then there’s the politics of the federal budget. Does anyone really think that the extreme partisanship and vitriol that has only grown since the 2010 elections will suddenly disappear or substantially subside on Nov. 7? Is it really possible that what is likely to be one of the most negative campaigns in U.S. history will make it easier to compromise after the elections are over? No matter what the election results, will either political party be willing to give away its ability to score points on the most contentious issues by agreeing to a compromise on spending and taxes, especially if it doesn’t include tax reform?

I have two predictions based on all of this. First, instead of a big budget deal, the most likely result by far is that stopgap, temporary fixes will be put in place for at least several months (and possibly a year) for all of the major spending and revenue decisions that are coming due. Second, although they obviously shouldn’t be, federal budget watchers will again express surprise and disappointment when this happens.


re: Expect Less, Not More, in Lame-Duck Session

So is your position that we should expect more of the same until:
- One party is able to capture the President, filibuster-proof majority in Senate, and House (otherwise, why else would they be so loathe to compromise?)

- We hit some type of fiscal crisis (think how the financial crisis began in August 2007 but we didn't get TARP until October and that was passed in less than 2 weeks). Of course this is a much more longer time-frame of a crisis.

You may be correct that it is reality; but as a citizen I think its a disgusting way to run the country. Of course all I can do is comment on blogs and bitch to my close friends in frustration.

There's no possibility we get the rise of some political force in the center around compromise, working together, and making sure everyone takes equal pain (rather than trying to target pain on political adversaries)...? Yeah... call me polyanna.

"[T]he most likely result by

"[T]he most likely result by far is that stopgap, temporary fixes will be put in place for at least several months (and possibly a year) for all of the major spending and revenue decisions that are coming due."

Stan, do you think this will include a fix that puts off the sequester of both military and domestic discretionary spending? One interest political dimension to this is whether the Republicans will be able to cow the Democrats into eliminating the military budget sequester--TROOPS IN HARMS WAY!! WHY DO DEMOCRATS HATE OUR BRAVE MEN IN UNIFORM!?!?--without getting anything in return with regard to the domestic discretionary sequester.

on the other hand...

I'm just afraid that the outgoing senators and reps that now have nothing to loose will gladly improve their corporate job prospects by passing massive tax cuts for the rich and the corporations.

Stuck until something big happens

I think we are going to be stuck until SOMETHING BIG happens, like 9/11, or California falling into the sea, or maybe just an Israeli/Pakistani nuclear exchange. Stan's right that the chances of anything occuring after the election is very slim.

Vin, we already have a

Vin, we already have a "political force in the center"- it's called the Democratic Party. What is needed is to sweep the insane, radical-right Republican Party out of power.

Lame Duck

The thing I worry about is the debt ceiling. If Pres. Obama gets re-elected he may have to declare the debt ceiling unenforceable in light of a stop-gap spending bill which will cause it to be exceeded and end the debt ceiling farce forever. Somehow I don't think the Republicans will get the blame if the US falls back into depression as a result of the fiscal brake being applied by current law at the end of 2012. And somehow I don't see the President and Senate Democrats driving a hard enough bargain in mitigating it, since they didn't in 2010.

I'm with Anonymous at 9:22am.

The last time "something happened during a lack duck session was in 1998, when a lot of bitter, nasty House Republicans--who had been voted out precisely because they were threatening to impeach the President--voted to impeach the President. (That the jerks at the NYT pretended that some [most especially the dolt replaced by Rush Holt in NJ-12] of the Ejected were "moderates" just means, at best, that the world will be a better place when we stop pretending the US is a democratic republic.)

Vote out a bunch of Moral Majoritarians--er, Tea Partyers--and watch them vote to further destroy any pretense that they care about "balancing the budget." While the Kent Conrads of the Senate have already made it clear they will fall in line.

Nothing good will come out of a lame duck session--but that doesn't mean nothing will.

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