The buzz around Capitol Hill these days is whether the House will pass a budget, and if Congress will be able to pass individual spending measures, known as appropriations bills. These discussions are important, but as spring announces its arrival, it is already time to think about the fall. That is because Republican congressional leadership may be using the sunlight of springtime to plan for moving bad spending bills in the darkness of winter. For after Election Day in November, Congress will be able to hold a lame duck session. That is a looming danger for our republic.
The origins of the phrase lame duck can be traced back to 1863. It refers to incumbent members of the House and Senate after a House or Senate election who remain in office until the end of that session of Congress. If either chamber meets after the election, these lawmakers are in a low accountability situation. They have either been defeated and are headed home, or have been re-elected and won’t face the voters again for some time. In a lame duck session, the House and the Senate, if they have the will, can act with virtual impunity. They can act quickly, with truncated debate, and little public input.
Since 1940, Congress has held 20 lame duck sessions, some of which were pro forma, lasting only a short time with no major legislative action. Many more were substantive sessions of Congress, where legislators approved rent control extensions, an environmental measure, housing legislation, trade reform legislation, a pay raise for House members, articles of impeachment in the House against President Clinton, establishing a new cabinet-level department (the Department of Homeland Security), trade deals, a House-passed auto industry bailout, a food safety bill, a defense bill, an intelligence bill, and appropriations.
Congress is currently deadlocked on many important issues, which is as the Founders intended. They created an elegant system of checks and balances to make it difficult for the federal government to take action on the very narrow range of responsibilities assigned to it by the Constitution. Congress also has a very limited supply of courage available to make the choices necessary to restore our country’s fiscal health, substantially roll back federal encroachment on issues the Constitution reserves to the states, and cut spending. Thus, conditions are ripe for a lame duck session where Congress could take action on spending bills that will promote a big government agenda at what lawmakers will perceive to be at minimal or no political cost to congressional leadership.
House Republican leadership is drifting toward a lame duck because they are promoting an irresponsible top line budget number of $1.07 trillion dollars. That level of spending will harm our national security and weaken us at home. President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and Majority Leader McConnell agreed to this dangerously high level of spending last year. Speaker Ryan is for supportive of it, for now.
Many conservatives, including members of the House Freedom Caucus, are fighting to keep the previous, lower top line budget number of $1.04 trillion. While still too high, this number would at least not give up ground to the Democrat and Republican congressional leadership’s budget busting math. It would show that Congress is serious about restoring balance to federal spending.
Which brings us to a lame duck. Congress will find it difficult to consider and pass each of the 12 spending bills absent a budget. Even if the House can pass its bills, Senate Republicans won’t want to upset Minority Leader Harry Reid by trying to move them. So before the fiscal year ends on September 30, Congress will likely pass a continuing resolution to maintain spending at current levels until after the election. Then Congress could come back into session, and pass all spending bills in one giant package called an omnibus.
That bill will be a fiscal mess, filled with goodies for lawmakers, bad accounting, and record levels of spending. We know that because, “[d]uring the 31-year period covering FY1986-FY2016, 22 different omnibus measures were enacted for 19 different fiscal years.” Those bill were largely horrible. The way to avoid this is two-fold: have the lowest possible budget number at $1.04 trillion, and commit not to exceed it in spending bills before or during a lame duck session of Congress this year.
The currency used most frequently by the Republican Congress should be that of courage, not taxpayer dollars. By keeping to a responsible, low budget number, Republicans can show that they are serious about governing again after sleepwalking through the challenges of the last several years. Claiming success for just growing the government a little less than Democrats would like is a hollow and uninspiring victory. Republicans should act boldly again. The times, and our fiscal distress, demand it.
Neil Siefring is director of strategic initiatives for FreedomWorks. His views are his own. Follow him on Twitter @NeilSiefring.