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Will a 'lame duck' session of Congress kick-start legislation?

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted October 28, 2002

The 107th Congress has limped to an end.

It should be no surprise that this is the case. Five Republican House Members are challenging Democratic Senate incumbents. It has traditionally been the case that Senators being challenged put pressure on the leadership to adjourn so they could get back to their states to campaign.

Both parties are doing what are called "tracking polls" in all of the tightly contested races. It's worth asking if the Democrats had been finding that their Senators had tracked better while in Washington playing Senator then they did at home, or why would they not have been back in their states a couple of weeks ago, when the Congressional leadership had originally wanted to adjourn.

The 107th Congress was notably unproductive. It began with a major tax cut, but that is one of the few bills of importance that made it through the Congress. The tax cut occurred in that short period when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. Once Democrats took over the Senate, thanks to the defection of Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, gridlock was the principle outcome of the 107th.

The House, under Speaker Denny Hastert (R), was unusually productive. It passed some 60 pieces of legislation that never saw the light of day in the Senate. As a matter of fact, thanks to the lack of productivity of the 107th Congress, a brief lame duck session now will be required.

The Senate never even passed a budget. Thanks to that highly unusual situation (the first time since 1974 that the Senate failed to pass a budget), the Senate had nothing to restrain it. It spent the taxpayer's dollars with reckless abandon. The House, for the most part, followed the budget figures proposed by the White House. One of the reasons that House and Senate conferees couldn't agree on most appropriations bills is precisely because the Senate insisted on its higher figures and that was unacceptable to House conferees.

The Homeland Security bill, proposed by President George W. Bush, easily passed the House. But in the Senate, public employee unions exerted enough control over the Senate majority that the President's bill -- and even compromise legislation -- went nowhere. That will be one of the items taken up at the lame duck session. That session may last as little as three days.

Important social issue legislation such as partial birth abortion and a measure banning cloning will likely die because there will be objection to bringing them up in the lame duck session.

U.S. President George W. Bush addresses a crowd of several thousand on the campus of Southwest Missouri State University on October 18 in Springfield, Mo. The stop was part of a swing to support Republican candidates including U.S. Senate candidate Jim Talent seated at right
U.S. President George W. Bush addresses a crowd of several thousand on the campus of Southwest Missouri State University on October 18 in Springfield, Mo. The stop was part of a swing to support Republican candidates including U.S. Senate candidate Jim Talent seated at right

Much is being made of the Missouri Senate race. If former Rep. Jim Talent (R) wins the seat, he will take his place in the Senate almost immediately because the Missouri contest is a special election for the remainder of the term of the late Governor Mel Carnahan (D). If the appointed incumbent, Carnahan's widow, wins the election then she keeps her seat. But if Talent wins, he is in the 107th Congress, thus giving Republicans control again.

Contrary to what you have heard, this will mean almost nothing for the President's agenda, House passed bills or nominees for federal judges. That is because, while Trent Lott will be majority leader, there will not be enough time to negotiate new committees and all nominees and legislation not on the Senate calendar will be stuck in the committees, still constituted as they were when Democrats controlled the Senate. So the shift will only be symbolic. Even if Lott can get a majority to bypass the Committees, he would need 60 votes to avoid a filibuster and Lott will be lucky if he can muster 51 votes in the 107th Congress.

Should Republicans take control of the Senate in the 108th Congress, there would be pressure on the Democrats to cooperate in the lame duck session because Republicans can turn around in January and pass anything currently stalled. But if Democrats control the Senate for the 108th Congress (which they think they are certain to do now that they have dodged the bullet in New Jersey) then they would have no incentive to co-operate with Republicans whose majority may only last three legislative days. If that's the case, then it will be business -- which is to say `no business' --as usual in Washington.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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