What Can The Lame-Duck Congress Actually Do?

Fifty-eight members of the House of Representatives lost their seats on Nov. 2. Before they depart and the new Congress is sworn in, they may get the chance to vote on issues like tax cuts. This period is known as the lame-duck session. Host Scott Simon speaks with Rutgers University Professor Ross Baker.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Imagine that a company fires nearly 60 of its employees. That doesn't take much imagination these days. But then imagine that for the next two months those people who've been terminated get to run the company, even though new people have been hired to replace them. Well, at least 58 members of the House of Representatives lost their seats on November 2nd but then they get a chance to vote on important issues, like tax cuts, before they depart and the new Congress is sworn in. That's what happens during a lame-duck session of Congress.

Ross Baker is a political science professor at Rutgers University. He's also been a staffer to half a dozen members of Congress. He joins us from the campus of Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey.

Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

Professor ROSS BAKER (Rutgers University): Thanks very much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Is a Congress that doesn't have to run for re-election more willing to make hard decisions than politicians who have to worry about the next election?

Prof. BAKER: There's very little evidence of that. The behavior of members of Congress is pretty constant, and kind of look at these lame-duck sessions, and there have been 17 of them since just before World War II, and you find that the senators and House members don't vote very differently than they would vote in an ordinary session. So there is the sense that somehow there will be all kinds of skullduggery going on in that, for example, the president will bribe members with wonderful fantasy jobs and so on to get them to vote his way, but there really isn't much evidence historically that that's the case.

SIMON: Well, I'm not one of those people that say, you know, but the British do it this way, why don't we? Or the Canadians, for that matter, the Western Europeans. But when a new government's elected in parliamentary systems, representatives change immediately, because they figure that's why they had an election. It's supposed to represent the will of the people. So why is it that the case here?

Prof. BAKER: There are a legitimacy about the idea of fairly large numbers of defeated members basically establishing public policy in the face of rejection by the voters. And I think it's a very cogent argument. Defenders of it, I think, would basically say, well, it's an opportunity to get things done. Perhaps it couldn't be done in an ordinary session, but I say, the record doesn't really sustain that. Although important things have been done in lame-duck sessions.

For example, the impeachment of President Clinton, the censure in 1954, of Joseph McCarthy, the approval of Nelson Rockefeller as vice president of the United States. So you know, things have been done, and the question is, you know, would they have been done without a lame-duck session? Of course, that's the kind of negative that's very difficult to prove.

SIMON: Now, a group of U.S. senators, senators-elect, has argued that the Senate majority leader ought to table discussion of the new START treaty they say out of respect for voters. I'm wondering what you think about a position like that?

Prof. BAKER: Well, I think that there was a fairly high level of consensus around the START treaty in 111th Congress. It was reported favorably out of the Foreign Relations Committee on a bipartisan vote. There was clearly some sentiment for it. And I think what you're seeing now is a political strategy unfolding in which the congressional Republicans have come to the conclusion that they want to deny President Obama anything for which he could conceivably take credit. And obviously, if the START treaty were ratified by a vote of 67 in the United States Senate, certainly it would enable President Obama to claim a success, and I think they've just determined they're just not going to give him that.

SIMON: Why didnt it pass months ago then?

Prof. BAKER: Well, because of other things. The Senate calendar is very crowded. One of the most precious commodities in the United States Senate is floor time, and particularly with legislation relating to the very, very massive changes in the health insurance system, efforts to combat unemployment and so on, it was shoved aside, along with other things, along with Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal and the Dream Act and a number of other things the Democrats have wanted. So that, I think, was the problem; basically it got crowded out by other things and just kicked down the road for the lame duck.

SIMON: Professor Baker, youve worked for half a dozen members of Congress...

Prof. BAKER: Yes.

SIMON: ...one party or another.

Prof. BAKER: Both.

SIMON: How do they feel about lame-duck sessions, or what's the range of feelings about lame-duck sessions?

Prof. BAKER: Well, I think there is a belief that it is an opportunity to get things done that are not done in the regular session. But honestly, after an election like this, most of them, I think, would rather be home resting up rather than back in Washington in a session which promises not to be terribly productive.

SIMON: Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Prof. BAKER: Youre welcome, Scott.

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