Conservative lawmakers and advocacy groups are fighting to prevent a lame-duck session after the November elections, arguing that members of Congress who have been booted from office shouldn't be responsible for major policy decisions.
Opponents of a post-election session are primarily wary of lawmakers passing another catch-all omnibus government spending package that would likely include a slew of policy riders.
“It’s the least accountable time for Congress,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told The Hill. “We let people who have either quit or been fired or retired vote on spending billions and billions of taxpayer dollars after their period of accountability has ended.
“This is something that is supposed to be Republican orthodoxy: that the least accountable government is the worst government."
The last two lame-duck sessions in 2014 and 2012 featured difficult negotiations over an omnibus spending package and expired tax breaks.
The pressure to reach a deal in both work periods was intense, with lawmakers in both parties eager to return home for the holidays — and that desire to leave town is something that congressional leaders often count on when wrapping up difficult legislation.
Even though last year’s omnibus appropriations bill wasn’t passed during a lame-duck session, many Republicans are reluctant to vote on a similar measure this year. Multiple rank-and-file Republicans facing primaries this time around were attacked for their votes in support of the 2015 omnibus.
Mindful of what’s ahead, conservatives are pushing to close off the possibility of a lame-duck session now, before Congress leaves town in early October for a final campaigning sprint.
A coalition of more than 30 organizations, led by the Koch brothers-backed Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity, sent a letter to lawmakers this week urging them to avoid taking up a spending package in a lame-duck session.
Instead, they want Congress this month to pass a stopgap spending bill, also known as a continuing resolution (CR), that lasts into 2017.
“History shows that end-of-year legislative packages are routinely rushed through Congress and to the President’s desk under the threat of a government shutdown — too fast for lawmakers and the taxpayers footing the bill to determine what is in them,” the letter said. “These important decisions should be made by lawmakers who are accountable to voters.”
Heritage Action, an outside conservative group, plans to be part of another coalition letter to lawmakers that will be released after Labor Day.
Opponents of a lame-duck session note that the practice of conducting final “must-do” business after the elections has only become a regular occurrence in the last two decades of modern political history.
Congress typically held lame-duck sessions before the Constitution’s 20th Amendment, which was ratified in 1933, changed each new session's starting date to January 3 from March 4. Lame-duck sessions were subsequently unusual for many decades to follow, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
Lawmakers convened frequently for lame-duck sessions in the years around the time of World War II. From there, no such sessions occurred from 1956 to 1968 or from 1984 to 1992. There were only four lame-duck sessions between those gaps: 1970, 1974, 1980 and 1982.
Since 1998, however, there has been a lame-duck session after every election.
Perhaps not coincidentally, lawmakers have held more lame-duck sessions at a time of increasing political polarization and gridlock.
“As there’s been more visibility into what Congress is doing, there’s been a temptation to put things off until after the election when there’s no accountability,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action.
Aides to Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanJuan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' Cheney allies flock to her defense against Trump challenge MORE (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden says he's open to altering, eliminating filibuster to advance voting rights Pelosi says GOP senators 'voted to aid and abet' voter suppression for blocking revised elections bill Manchin insists he hasn't threatened to leave Democrats MORE (R-Ky.) said any decision on the length of a stopgap bill would first be discussed with members when they return after Labor Day.
But Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid calls on Democrats to plow forward on immigration Democrats brace for tough election year in Nevada The Memo: Biden's horizon is clouded by doubt MORE (D-Nev.) put the kibosh on Democrats agreeing to a stopgap measure lasting beyond December. He said President Obama made clear during a private meeting that he wouldn’t sign a CR that goes into next year, in a sign that Democrats want to clear the decks for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSuper PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump I voted for Trump in 2020 — he proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021 Neera Tanden tapped as White House staff secretary MORE, the Democratic presidential nominee, if she wins White House.
Even so, some liberal Democrats are siding with the Freedom Caucus.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said he's worried that a lame-duck spending bill would provide too much opportunity for GOP leaders to slip in controversial policy riders.
Many Democrats also fear Republican leaders will side with Obama and hold a lame-duck vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an enormous international trade deal that's anathema to liberals on Capitol Hill. Pushing the omnibus debate to next year would prevent it from being used for passage of the TPP.
"What worries me is the Christmas tree effect," Grijalva said in a phone interview. "Empowering a lame-duck Congress to do a lot of things. … I think that would be very dangerous.
"Let's do it in a new Congress and a new administration."
Other members of Congress dismiss the argument that members who’ve just lost reelection shouldn’t be trusted to vote on major policy decisions.
“That’s a bunch of crap,” centrist Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said in an interview. "I think they’re just looking for an excuse to do nothing.”
Lawmakers whose terms all expire in early January shouldn’t be off the hook before then, Dent and others argue.
The new Congress and president will already have plenty on their plates. The debt limit is expected to expire in the spring, and whoever wins the White House will have to nominate new members of their administration to be confirmed by the Senate.
“Since we’re all drawing our checks, we ought to actually do our job and get it done, and recognize that the next administration and the next Congress are going to have plenty that they have to deal with on their own and not throw additional work at them because we were either too lazy or incompetent to do our work,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Moreover, Republicans are mindful that they could lose control of the Senate, some House seats and the presidency, based on recent polls showing Clinton ahead of Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Super PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE. In that vein, they think they’d be better off finishing appropriations now instead of in March.
“As Republicans, we ought to insist on doing with a CR between now and the end of the year. Because if we go into the new year, there’s a real possibility that [Sen.] Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerDemocratic frustration with Sinema rises Schumer endorses democratic socialist India Walton in Buffalo mayor's race Guns Down America's leader says Biden 'has simply not done enough' on gun control MORE [D-N.Y.] could be the majority leader of the Senate,” said Dent, another senior appropriator. “It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to send this into the new year for both policy and political reasons.”
Lawmakers would likely return to Capitol Hill after the elections even if they decided to rule out doing legislative business. Members of both parties are expected to hold their leadership elections for the new Congress, and newly elected lawmakers typically come to the Capitol for freshman orientation.
For Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), who arrived to the House in November 2014 to finish ousted ex-House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorBottom line Virginia GOP candidates for governor gear up for convention Cantor: 'Level of craziness' in Washington has increased 'on both sides' MORE’s term, that lame-duck session effectively served as his freshman orientation.
“Since I have been in the House, leadership on both sides have constructed shutdowns as a Christmas present, beginning with my CR vote and then last year the omnibus crap sandwich budget vote, and now this year,” Brat said.
“Merry Christmas again to all.”
— Mike Lillis and Scott Wong contributed.