What is the Lame Duck?

Weekly WastebasketWhat is the Lame Duck?The votes are in. Let the lame duck begin.

Budget & Tax,  | Weekly Wastebasket
Nov 6, 2020  | 5 min read | Print Article

With voting over and the post-electoral dust (sort of) settling, taxpayers are getting a picture of the 117th Congress. Control of the Senate might be unknown until January. Democrats retain control of the House by a slimmer margin. And the presidency, well, it is what it is. So what happens between now and January 4 when the next Congress begins, and new members-elect are sworn into office? Like a mallard on the mend – it’s a lame duck!

Any elected official in between the election of a successor and their being sworn into office is a “lame duck,” because of their lessened influence due to their limited time left in office. Because lame ducks do not have to focus on getting reelected, however, they are free to make decisions without fear of immediate electoral consequences – or simply disappear. In Congress, this post-election period when departing ducks get in some last quick quacks are known as lame duck sessions, and they can be marked by free-wheeling and dealing with  bills moving or sometimes crickets – it all depends on what needs to be done and what power centers feel like they are better off now or in 2021.

As of our writing, there are scores of members of Congress who are now lame ducks. Offices must be prepared for the incoming freshman class of new legislators, so lame duck House members are literally corralled to the very grim sounding Departing Member Center and placed in cube farms in the basement of a House office building. Think Dilbert, but even crabbier! (Lame duck Senators get to keep their office up until the eve of swearing-in, but you can bet staff are quickly taking flight to new perches.)

There’s still work for members of Congress to do during this lame duck period, though. Immediately after election day, re-elected Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) indicated a new COVID-19 relief package will be a priority for passage before year-end. Good thing. As we mentioned last week, lawmakers need to focus on passing another COVID-19 relief bill. The last major COVID-19 related package was the CARES Act signed into law seven months ago. The eviction moratorium and the deferral of federal student loans are both set to end. Millions of people and large sectors of the American economy are still strained due to the pandemic and need assistance. Clearly Congress must pass additional legislation that abides by our principles to the pandemic in mid-March.

There’s also the need for Congress to perform their most basic responsibility and pass appropriations for the full 2021 fiscal year that began two months ago. Government agencies are currently funded through December 11 after a continuing resolution was signed by President Trump on October 1. According to the Congressional Research Service, the last time all appropriations bills were enacted into law before   the end of the fiscal year was in 1998, the last time they were all done individually and on time (aka “regular order”) was 1994. That was a full generation ago. Coincidentally, President Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives during the lame duck session in 1998.

The last time all appropriations were enacted during a lame duck was in 2004. Congress should buck that trend and fund the government. Or else once again legislators will punt their power of the purse responsibility to the next Congress, as has been the case during the past seven lame duck sessions.

The actions the 116th Congress needs to take in its last months are all items it should have checked off its list before they left to campaign. In the New Year we’ll have a new Congress focused on funding the government for FY22, a president combating the twilight zone that was 2020, and just two short years before the next election. It’s time to stop the theatrics and get to doing the people’s business.

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