When the same party controls both branches, it is even more inclined to game the potential of a lame-duck session if the other party is about to take over at least one chamber in the next Congress. After the 2010 elections, for instance, in which Republicans regained control of the next House, the unified Democratic Congress under President Barack Obama convened a lame-duck session that was especially productive: It extended the Bush-era tax cuts, the payroll tax holiday and unemployment insurance; repealed the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; and took final action on a food safety bill and a nuclear arms treaty.
Congress avoided one budgetary hang-up this year by enacting a six-month, governmentwide appropriations continuing resolution before the elections. However, it still faces a budgetary crisis of epic proportions in the lame-duck session — the confluence at the “fiscal cliff” of expiring tax provisions, across-the-board spending cuts (sequestration) and a debt default, the combined effects of which could hurl the country back into a recession.
While it is not realistic to expect Congress to enact a final grand budget bargain during the next month, it is realistic to expect it to make a substantial down payment and establish an enforceable framework for completing the deal early next year in return for putting off the drop-dead dates.
Yes, that would be kicking the can down the road once again. But road-running is far safer than cliff-diving. Consider it a highway to somewhere that would rely this time for its construction on the standing committees of jurisdiction, through a reconciliation-like process, instead of on a super committee powered by super gizmos that go kaput in the night.
In the 1950s, comedian Groucho Marx hosted the TV quiz show, “You Bet Your Life.” If one of the contestants said the secret word, a toy duck (resembling Groucho) would drop from the ceiling with a $100 bill. It will take more than secret words to transform this lame-duck session into a mighty duck bearing big bucks in savings. But sometimes small gains can avert greater pains down the road. That is probably the best that can be hoped for this year.
Don Wolfensberger is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.