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Lame-Duck Sessions Don't Hatch Procedural Quackery | Procedural Politics

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid talks with Don Stewart, spokesman for presumed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Capitol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Lame-duck sessions of Congress are those that occur after an election and before the new Congress.  The lame ducks, of course, are those members who will not be returning in the next Congress due to retirement, defeat or running for other office.  Oh, they still get paid and are still expected to vote (and most do).   But, they have less incentive to show up regularly or vote the party line.   That throws an element of uncertainty into lame-duck sessions and is why leaders would prefer to avoid them altogether. Nowadays, however, they are all but impossible to avoid given an appropriations process infected by an unchained malady looping in an unfinished symphony.   Counting the current lame-duck session, there have only been 20 such sessions (out of 40 possible) since 1935 when the 20th amendment to the Constitution took effect.  That amendment changed the date for commencement of Congress to January 3, eliminating routine lame-duck “short sessions” between early December and early March.   Nine of the 20 lame ducks occurred in this and the preceding eight Congresses.   In all but three, Congress was forced to return after an election due in part to an “incomplete” on its appropriations report card.  The three exceptions were 1998 for impeachment, 2008 for the economic meltdown, and 2012 for the fiscal cliff.   This year Congress enacted none of its regular appropriations bills before the election recess, forcing government by continuing resolution through Dec. 11 and a lame-duck session beginning this week. While presidents and an assortment of interest groups have long lists of items they would like a lame-duck session to consider, leaders prefer confining the agenda to “must pass” legislation: appropriations bills, and expiring tax and authorization laws.  The exceptions are when an election takes control of Congress away from the president’s party as in 2006 and 2010.   That sets up a last-chance-for-legislative-romance dance between the branches.   The lame-duck Congress in 2012 was also unusually productive given the action-forcing mechanism of the fiscal cliff.  The current lame-duck round is unlikely to replicate its predecessor in legislative activity.  That’s because of the lack of crisis, the president’s weakened status as a lame duck himself and Republicans’ better chances for success next Congress.   No one is in an advantaged position this year to extract anything from a lame duck whose unsynchronized left and right wings have essentially grounded Congress for the better part of the past four years.  Better to let it limp off stage with a minimal modicum of respect still intact. That is not to say the leaders will have an easy time passing even a minimalist, must-pass agenda in the final days.  While leaders might be expected under such time-sensitive conditions to pull out all the stops on procedural gimmicks and shortcuts and resort to what I call “procedural quackery” to get things done, quite the opposite has been true.   An examination of the past eight Congresses reveals that most legislation considered during a lame-duck session is handled in a fairly straightforward manner.   That’s because heavy-handed procedural gamesmanship late in the game can produce unnecessary partisan strife, delay and even defeat.    Granted, there are no open amendment rules in the waning days of a session — continuing and omnibus appropriations and tax measures are traditionally closed, whether pre- or post-election. M embers are more accepting of expedited procedures given the urgency of the agenda and the siren song of families beckoning them home for Thanksgiving and the religious holidays. So, if you hear any duck calls emanating from Congress over the next month, don’t consider it a procedural quackery alert.  More likely they are being sounded by the masters of the flock herding their fine feathered followers toward the exits until the last duck drops. Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee. Roll Call Results Map: Results and District Profiles for Every Seat