The lame-duck government is all the rage in the news these days. Entire news shows with talking head after talking head discuss what the lame-duck Congress will do, what it should do, what it is right for it to do, and so on. Meanwhile, states are having their own lame-duck sessions, with their own new laws, regulations and deals being pushed through by governments populated by people who’ve been rejected by their constituents. Yet that simple and obvious rejection by voters deters no one with a vote and inspires little questioning of the legitimacy of the concept.
So, is it time to do away with lame-duck governments?
Traditionally, lame-duck governments go about the business of the people and work with their successors to ensure a smooth transition. Loose ends are tied up, final business is squared away and farewell speeches are given. Lame-ducks are traditionally just like their name implies – one legislative session limping to its merciful end. This year, however, lame-duck sessions more resemble the Terminator than a bird nearing its end. They won’t stop and they can’t be reasoned with.
The US Congress has attempted to cram nearly a normal legislative calendar’s worth of work into its final weeks. Bills that normally would move at a snail’s pace from introduction, to committee, to hearings, more hearings, amendments and then maybe a vote — a process normally taking months or years — have been introduced days before votes were attempted. The $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill is one example of a bill it would be nearly impossible to read in the time originally allotted before a final vote (just try reading legislation; it’s evil). Thankfully, that bill was pulled. But others are still alive and kicking.
These sorts of actions beg the following question: What authority does a legislature coming to an end and filled with legislators who have been rejected by the people they represent have to bind the next one to laws, regulations, etc., that would otherwise not see the light of day?
Constitutionally there is no doubt that they have every authority to do so, but what about morally?
Expecting Congress to address this dilemma is akin to expecting the sun to rise in the west one morning — it simply isn’t going to happen. Congress does not like to limit its options or power. But the states are experiencing similar problems with lame-duck governments, and therein lies the opportunity for reform.
Ballot measures are one way voters could limit the authority of states’ lame-duck governments. In most states, it’s a relatively simple, if daunting, task to get a measure on the ballot, and it’s usually difficult for state legislators to repeal ballot measures they don’t like.
Here are just two examples of lame-duck state officials waiting until they were no longer accountable to voters to impose unpopular decisions on their states.
In Iowa, Governor Chet Culver lost to Republican challenger Terry Brandstad by nearly 10 points. Despite this fact, shortly after the election Culver approved raises for the state’s union employees that will cost Iowans more than $200 million. Governor-elect Brandstad’s hands were tied by the outgoing governor — he had to either accept the deal or be seen as the man who revoked thousands of raises. Politics is a contact sport.
In New York, unelected Governor David Paterson, who assumed office when disgraced former Governor Eliot Spitzer was forced to resign for frequenting prostitutes, was so unpopular that he didn’t even bother to run for his own term. But his unpopularity hasn’t stopped him from exercising his authority one last time on his way out the door. Without public hearing, without public discussion or any explanation, Governor Paterson is attempting to grant a casino license to an out-of-state Indian tribe without consideration of in-state tribes. Why would a governor of New York grant a gambling license to an Indian tribe from Wisconsin when local tribes, who were interested, were shut out? No one knows, it’s all been secret, but you can be sure it’s not that New York is flush with cash and has no interest in getting the highest possible price for the casino license. The state’s newspapers have criticized the proposal, elected officials who actually won their elections are opposing it, and Governor Paterson seems to have no interest in explaining his actions…because he doesn’t have to. Since he’ll never face the political consequences of his actions, he doesn’t care. It will, however, be interesting to see where he ends up landing in his post-political career. Can’t wait to see if he earns any income from anyone associated with the gambling industry in Wisconsin…
Lame-duck governments are supposed to fill the gap between elections and inaugurations, not pay off supporters, ram through electorally unpopular projects and bind future governments’ hands on issues impacting the future. Be it amnesty for illegal aliens (failed), payoffs to unions for past and possible future support (Iowa), or a mystery violation of the public trust that could cost taxpayers millions (New York), lame-duck governments have become a Frankenstein’s monster of the modern era. Don’t expect it to end anytime soon…there’s too much money and power in it.
Derek Hunter is a Washington based writer and consultant. He can be stalked on Twitter @derekahunter.