Sen. Jim DeMint would rather see Congress go over the fiscal cliff than have a group of “zombie legislators” make tax and spending policy in final post-election weeks of the 112th Congress.
In a report on the dangers of legislating in lame-duck sessions, the South Carolina Republican argues, “The American people were never presented with competing ‘lame duck’ agendas, so Washington has no business trying to pass one. Conservatives may not like the policy outcome in any case, but rejecting the ‘lame duck’ and achieving an honest, transparent process respectful of the American people and our republican institutions is significant in its own right.”
The report — entitled “No Lame Deal in the Lame Duck” — adds that even if a lame-duck deal negotiated at the leadership level were to be blocked with a mix of liberal and conservative votes, “the precedent against ‘lame ducks’ is worth fighting for nonetheless.”
The report likens lame-duck lawmakers — those who have lost a re-election campaign or are retiring but are still in office until the 113th Congress convenes in January — to zombies.
“They are free, for two months and at taxpayer expense, to vote for whatever they please ... without their constituents being able to do anything about it,” the report says.
DeMint’s report also draws on conventional wisdom to outline what an agreement drafted by the White House and Congressional leaders might look like. That includes some increases in taxes and what the report calls “accounting gimmicks” to generate budget savings. DeMint rejects the idea of including any tax increases in the agreement.
Senate Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., expressed his opposition to achieving savings through budget-scoring tricks in his own letter sent Wednesday to House and Senate leaders. He notes that the discussions on avoiding the year-end combination of tax increases and spending cuts through sequestration set up by last year’s debt limit law may include effective increases in federal spending.
“Offsets for any of these changes must also be achieved through real savings, not gimmicks like counting baseline savings from future war spending that is not expected to occur,” Sessions wrote.
Sessions is referencing the practice of taking advantage of budget-scoring rules that allow counting savings for the wind down of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Numerous lawmakers have tossed around the idea of using that money to block a cut in payment rates for doctors treating Medicare patients.
DeMint’s objections to the lame-duck agenda does not end with the big deal on fiscal policy. He alludes to a list of potential lame-duck agenda items assembled by Democratic leadership staff as other items that he believes did not receive serious debate during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Those issues range from an extension of expanded unemployment benefits to the stalled farm bill to a bill regarding the regulation of Internet gambling. That last measure, which would establish limits on online gaming and set up requirements for state-level regulation of web poker games, is a home-state priority of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Reid has worked with retiring Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona on setting up the regulatory framework.
Like some other conservatives, DeMint also takes issue with the idea of taking action on treaties before the start of the new Congress in January. That includes the Law of the Sea Treaty, a multilateral pact governing use of deep seas that he has long opposed. That measure is not really expected to come up during the lame duck, even though in remarks Tuesday at the Center for a New American Security, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta called out the Senate for the delay.
“It’s an outrage that we have not done that,” Panetta said. “But they’re constantly running into a wall because, for some ideological reason of a few members up there, this has become an issue that they’re going to fight and they’re going to stop as best they can.”
Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania worked in September to gather opposition to considering any treaties during the lame-duck session.
An omnibus appropriations bill would be another item sure to draw conservative ire. On Tuesday, a House GOP aide gave favorable odds to assembling a measure to fund the federal government for the rest of the 2013 fiscal year, while the Senate Appropriations Committee says it will be prepared to being a bill to the floor if Reid so desires.
DeMint supported enactment of a six-month continuing resolution (HR 117) to keep the government running through the first three months of calendar year 2013 because it would prevent the need to move an omnibus before the end of the current Congress. The report warns that “zombie legislators” might try to move another omnibus, which happened after the 2000 election.
Philosophical opposition to lame-duck sessions is nothing new, dating back to the earliest days of the republic. Lame-duck sessions used to have the potential to drag on much longer because the new Congress was seated in March of the year following elections rather than January.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.