Is President Reagan to blame for the lame-duck session?

Elizabeth Letchworth Former U.S. Senate Secretary
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In this era of playing the blame game, can the blame for the current lame-duck session be pinned on President Reagan? I think it can.

Ronald Reagan won his first presidential term in a landslide election back in 1980. That election “shellacking” produced the second largest GOP freshman Senate class in modern history, with 12 new Republican senators. The largest class of GOP senators in modern history is the incoming class, which has 13 new Republican senators. The 1980 class brought to the Senate members who had little or no experience in public service. The new majority leader, Howard Baker (R-TN), found himself having to educate some of these new members about what it takes to be a U.S. Senator, including conducting tough political votes. As their seats came up for reelection, they asked the leadership to protect them from some of the more polarizing votes by not having the Senate debate these issues close to their election dates. As the years went on, members of Congress began to expect this protection more and more from their leadership.

Now fast-forward to 2010. The Pelosi/Reid Democrats expended all of their political capital on getting the Obama health care bill through Congress. After the backroom deals like the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, the Slaughter Solution and the others had been exposed, members of Congress began to hear from their constituents in a loud way. Each time members of Congress returned home during their Congressional recesses, it became clear that their constituents were not happy with their performance in DC. This disgruntlement caused members of Congress to demand from Pelosi and Reid that they not be asked to conduct any more controversial or “sexy” votes. They were afraid further polarizing votes would put them at odds with their constituents. Thus, Congress began to kick the can down the road on all of the major legislative initiatives that Congresses of the past have routinely enacted. For example, this Congress made history by not enacting a single appropriations bill. This Congress also made history by failing to pass a Congressional Budget through either house of Congress. Finally, this Congress made history by refusing to enact a Defense Department authorization bill. All three of these feats were accomplished under the leadership of Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Now the answer to these and other issues rests in the hands of members of Congress who were relieved of their duties by a vote held on Nov. 2. Does that show backbone and leadership or what?

So you now have a two-staged lame-duck session of Congress jammed with major legislation punted from the regular Congressional session. These bills have huge ramifications for all Americans. And it’s all because the leadership sheltered members of Congress from conducting ticklish votes during the regular session of Congress. This phenomenon has become a deadly habit with the leaders in Congress and in my opinion needs to end with the new 112thCongress.

Every Congress since 2000 has convened in a lame-duck session, but this current one happens to be a real doozie since it includes all of the appropriations bills, taxes affecting every American, small business tax deductions affecting over 700,000 small businesses, a Defense Department authorization bill that affects our troops, the unemployed, and doctors and hospitals who serve Medicare patients. Gee, did they leave out any segment of America from this lame-duck session?

Stay tuned to see if the new 112thCongress under the helm of Speaker Boehner has the leadership skills to convince all members of Congress to man-up and not run from tough political votes. This writer will be watching. This country can’t take many more of these two-headed, jam-packed, lame-duck sessions of Congress.

Elizabeth B. Letchworth is a retired, elected United States Senate Secretary for the Majority and Minority. Currently she is a senior legislative adviser for Covington & Burling, LLC and is the founder of www.gradegov.com.

Elizabeth Letchworth