Following the Jimmy Carter example, yet again

Posted By Elgin Hushbeck

The No-Labels crowd is back with a major push, which is not too surprising.  The more Democrats and/or liberals reveal their true nature, thereby damaging their brand, the more they seek to avoid labels that would identify them for who they are.  Obama, Reid and Pelosi have really made a mess of things this time, leading to the greatest electoral defeat in decades.  Thus, the no labels crowd to the rescue.    But it may be too little too late.

More disturbing was the Democrats legislative strategy.  Knowing that they were going to have troubles at the polls, the Democrats simply ignored the law requiring Congress to create a budget, as a budget would reveal their spending priorities, causing them even more grief.   They also sat on many of their more controversial bills knowing that to push them would only further hurt their chances at the polls, with the intentions of cramming them through in the lame duck session where they would no longer be accountable.

There is something fundamentally wrong such a strategy as it makes a mockery of the notion of representative democracy.  Even my liberal friends were somewhat uncomfortable with this approach, but in the end they wrote it off with the claim that “both sides do it.”  But they don’t. 

Since 1940 there have been 18 lame duck sessions, many simply to tie up loose ends dealing with appropriations, or to keep the government running till the next Congress has time to get going.   Lame duck Congresses can be measured on two factors, the number of members changed, and the significance of the legislation passed.   Insignificant legislation, with little change in Congress, results in a pretty innocuous lame duck session, while significant legislation passed when Congress is changing hands, is highly undemocratic, and should be considered illegitimate.

Most lame duck sessions have been of the innocuous variety as normally there is not that much change in Congress, or where before the election, power was split between the parties and so there was little opportunity to cram through any significant legislation, though in the 1982 lame duck session, Congress did give itself a pay raise.  However, in 1980, 1994, 2006, and now 2010 the complete control of one party over the Senate, the House and the Presidency was lost by losing one or more of the three.   In 1980, 1994, 2010 Republicans broke up Democratic control, while in 2006, Republican control was broken by the Democrats.  

In the lame duck session following their losses in 2006, Republicans passed continuing resolutions to fund the government into February of the next year, thereby letting the new Congress have their say.   They also passed some minor tax benefit extensions and some trade legislation.  It also completed work on bills for the Postal service and Veterans Affairs, both passed in the Senate by unanimous consent and in the house by a voice vote.  Finally the Senate Confirmed Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense by a wide margin to replace Donald Rumsfeld, who resigned following the election.   In short, they did little, and nothing very controversial.

Much the same can be said for the Democrats following their loss in 1994, where they passed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) a bill that had strong support but opponents had been delaying.  But things were vastly different in 1980. That year with the looming potential that the defeat of Jimmy Carter could drag down many Democratic Congressmen and Senators,  Democrats delayed “potentially difficult pre-election votes on budget matters”  and on “landmark environmental legislation”  till after the election.  Following the election rather than pass continuing resolutions (as Republicans would do in 2006) the democrats passed a number of appropriations bills. They also passed the Superfund bill, an Alaska lands bill, and several other measures.  

So when looking that the 2010 lame duck session, the simple fact is that both sides don’t do it.  In the closest historical parallel, Jimmy Carter’s loss in 1980, again it was the Democrats delaying votes and then pushing through major bills in the lame duck session.   When the Republicans did have a chance to do this following their loss in 2006, they passed very little of significance mostly by unrecorded votes that were not contested. 

To see why Democrats do this is easy. After all if you have already been rejected by votes, why not vote for a measure voters oppose. What else can they do to you?   And what better enticement to a politician who has just lost their job by being voted out, then the promise of a nice job if they vote the right way?  Another real problem in all of this is that in the effort to push through these measures debate, discussion and amendments are short-circuited, and legislatures end up as an all-or-nothing approach.   

The START Treaty is a prime example.  One of the major questions raised by opponents   goes to the heart of just what the treaty means, as the public comments from Russian and Administration officials are in conflict over its implications for anti-ballistic missile development. If both sides cannot agree on what the treaty says before it is even ratified, then what good is the treaty?  More importantly, just what is the Senate ratifying?   

To try and clarify this, critics asked to see the negotiating record so they could see exactly what was said and agreed to, as has been done in the pass, but the Administration refused to release it.   Given time, these matters could be worked out, but that would take a few months.  So instead it was just pushed through before we really know the impact it will really have.  This is probably why no other treaty has been ratified in a lame duck session.  Yet here, the national security of the United States has taken the Pelosi approach:  You have to ratify the treaty to see what is in it.   Frankly, the ratification of this treaty should be considered suspect.

In terms of a solution, we should probably give some serious consideration to the British system.  When politicians lose in Britain, they are out the very next day.  We should consider the same thing, at the least for the Senate and House.   This would take a new constitutional amendment, but it is one worth serious consideration.

Jan 3rd, 2011

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