Duck season opens

Hon. Ernest Istook Former Republican Congressman
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As members of Congress vacate Washington to campaign, they promise (or threaten) to return after Election Day to clean up the mess they leave behind.

As Senator Ben Nelson (D, NE) told a Heritage Foundation audience, it’s unclear whether the post-election session will be lame ducks.  Or dead ducks.  Or Daffy Ducks.

Nelson had a cute line, but there’s nothing cute about Congress’ unfinished business, nor about the problems that the resulting uncertainty creates for the country.

Headlines show the leftover mess will be big and confusing.  “Democrats to stuff 20 bills into post-election lame-duck session” was the banner in The Hill.

But it’s a mystery whether they will halt the tax hikes scheduled to hit January 1st.  Or how much they will decide to spend — since Congress failed to adopt a budget.

The lame duck session has a lot to cover in a short time.  Election Day is November 2.  The current Congress reconvenes November 15.  The new Congress convenes January 3.  Squeezed in among Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas and New Year’s will be the December 1st deadline for the “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility” to approve its final report.

Actual working days will be few for Congress — as they have been all year.

No matter what that commission recommends about taxes, spending and fiscal policy, nobody seriously expects a lame duck Congress to digest and act on its report before January 3rd.  Especially since both political parties will be consumed with internal jockeying for power if the Republicans capture the House majority as expected.

The realignment of the House goes far beyond ducks; it could be a true zoo.

Capitol Hill newspapers already are exploring the fault lines between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats, anticipating that she might be out even if the Democrats retain their majority.  She’s not helped by a national poll showing her 50% negativity rating is identical to BP’s. Or by an Associated Press analysis documenting how Pelosi has failed to fulfill her 2006 pledge to create “the most honest, most open, most ethical Congress in history.”

Politico outlines how Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D, MD) is likely positioned to replace Pelosi — even if it’s as minority leader rather than speaker — concluding that his comparatively moderate positions “set(s) up Hoyer as a clear alternative to Pelosi should she leave leadership voluntarily, or by political force, after November’s mid-term election.”

On the GOP side, even if Republican Leader John Boehner (R, OH) is elevated to speaker, there will be wrangling over plenty of other positions.  Roll Call predicts, “There could also be bitter fights for prime committee chairmanships,” and efforts to revisit the internal GOP rule that restricts chairmen to six years as ranking member or chairman of a committee.  Those who spent four years as ranking member would like a full six years as a chairman.

The voices and votes of a large but yet-unmeasured freshman class could sway many outcomes — especially with the Tea Party fervor that many will inject.

That’s just the House.  The potential for a majority shift is less clear in the Senate, which also has fewer moving parts due both to its smaller size and the fact that only a third of the senators face re-election every two years.

Great expectations don’t exist for the lame duck/dead duck session of Congress.  The vote to adjourn until after the elections was a 210-209 cliffhanger.  And Congress is keeping our economy and jobs in cliffhanger mode as well.

Ernest Istook was a U.S. Congressman for 14 years and is now a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.