Issues in the Lame Duck Congress

This Monday, the 111th Congress will convene for the first day of its last session.  This session, called the lame duck session, occurs after the election but before the new members of Congress take their seats, on January 3.  Historically, there has been a lot of variation in what gets done during these periods.  Sometimes, they are relatively inactive or characterized by gridlock.  In some years, though, some important legislation is forged and passed during the lame duck session.

This year, Congress left a lot of things to be done during the lame duck session.  Some of the issues they have yet to address are virtual necessities – the failure to address them would be a real problem practically and politically.  Other issues are leftovers that have yet to be fully resolved after a long, contentious 2 years.  On top of that, the Democratic majority has a long wish list of other issues it would like to address.

There are at least two explanations for why the to-do list is so long.  First, a lot of Democrats felt vulnerable in the last few months before Election Day.  There were a lot of issues where a vote in the wrong direction could leave them open to attack from their opponents in an already difficult political climate.  The Blue Dogs in the House and conservative Democratic Senators delayed action on a lot of issues to avoid the political consequences.

Also, the Democrats know that they are about to lose quite a few Senators and their majority in the House.  They may be scrambling to get as many pieces of legislation through Congress while they still hold this advantage.  After all, any policy that can make it through the legislature now will probably be much closer to what the Democrats want than what will be passed by Congress in the near future.

Let’s take a look at which issues will be on the docket for Congress over the next few weeks.  First, the big ticket items:

  • The 2011 budget. You may be surprised to hear that Congress has not yet passed a budget for the current fiscal year, which started October 1.  A couple days before the fiscal year started, they passed a continuing resolution, which allowed government services to continue through December 3, with a couple cuts.  So Congress bought themselves some more time, but the budget is something that they will have to deal with during this session.  I suppose if it comes to this, they could always just pass another continuing resolution.  Don’t be alarmed.  This happened in 2007 and 2008, too.
  • Extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. This is going to be a hot topic for the next month or so.  The tax cuts passed by Congress during the recession in 2001 and later in 2003 are set to expire at the end of this year.  The debate mainly centers around whether all the tax cuts, or only the tax cuts on up to $250,000 in income, should be extended.   Pretty much everyone agrees that letting all the tax cuts expire right now is not such a good idea.  Expect brinkmanship.
  • Defense authorization bill. You would think that defense is something that Congressmen can find some common ground on.  So how does the defense budget get delayed?  Well, the Democratic majority wanted the bill to include a repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy upon completion of a military review.  It’s a polarizing issue, and they were unable to pass the bill before the election break.  It is still unclear whether this Congress will manage to end “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Each of the issues listed above are ones that Congress must address before the end of this legislative session, which will probably be sometime before Christmas.  Those issues alone will take a lot of political capital and a lot of effort, and there is not much time.  Nevertheless, the list goes on.  Some of the issues that, in my opinion, are likely to get the most attention are:

  • Immigration reform
  • Extension of UI benefits
  • Ratification of the new START treaty
  • Suspending scheduled cuts in Medicare reimbursements
  • Further tax relief

There will probably be an attempt to get a vote on the DREAM Act or some derivation of it.  The DREAM Act, in a nutshell, would give young illegal immigrants a path to permanent residency if they complete college.  Democrats in the Senate were unable to break a filibuster against the bill when it was brought up in September.

Ratification of the new START treaty with Russia appears to be a place where some Republicans would be willing to submit a “yes” vote.  Extension of UI benefits and further tax relief have barely survived battles over the past year in the Senate, but if Senators continue to vote the way they have on these issues, we may see them pass.  As for the Medicare cuts, they have been suspended almost every year, including earlier in this one.  I don’t see that changing this time around.

Finally, here are some more issues that members of Congress have shown a desire to address:

  • Federal renewable energy standards
  • EPA regulation of carbon emissions
  • Cybersecurity
  • Mine safety
  • Food safety
  • Child nutrition
  • Reauthorization or rehaul of No Child Left Behind
  • Chinese currency manipulation

For more details on these, check out this post at The Hill.  I’m pretty sure that only a small fraction of these topics will get anywhere before the end of the lame duck session, which is 5 or 6 weeks long.  Given the time and energy required to address just the essential issues described earlier, there does not appear to be a realistic chance for many of these matters to get through.  I suspect that if we do see legislation on these topics, it will be only in those areas that are relatively noncontroversial.  Child nutrition or food safety, for example, might be areas where bipartisanship can allow legislation to move quickly.

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