Economy & Budget

Stop the lame-duck Congress, avoid a fiscal cliff

Stop the lame-duck Congress, avoid a fiscal cliff

The term “lame duck” was originally used in the 18th century to describe bankrupt British businesses, whose flailing resembled game birds flopping about after being shot.

Congress—with its approval rating at 13 percent, an all-time low, is once again resembling those injured birds as it puts off essential business until after the November elections, creating a lame-duck session of the legislative body.

Such a session is an affront to democracy. Some of the most important decisions that Congress has to make—decisions on taxes, spending, and national security that will affect every American—will essentially be made by unaccountable officials, many of whom have just been thrown out of office by their constituents.

It wasn’t always this way. After a lame-duck session in 1954, Congress had only three such occurrences over the next 40 years. Historically, the sessions were meant to deal with national emergencies or unusual circumstances, and not an attempt to deal with essential business.

In 1950, for example, when the Korean War was at a critical stage, Congress convened after the election to be available if President Harry S. Truman requested action. In 1954, the Senate met in a lame-duck session to consider the censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his quest to rid Communist sympathizers from the government.

Now, lame-duck sessions in Congress have become as predictable as the cherry blossoms blooming at the nearby Tidal Basin—since 1996, the legislators have returned after the elections every two years without an exception.

Vital measures

The move by the current Congress to pass a six-month continuing resolution to fund the federal government through March leaves vital measures still to be considered.

Left unfinished is how to go about avoiding falling off a fiscal cliff, taxmageddon, and a debilitating defense sequestration.

Without congressional action by the end of the year, automatic tax increases will hit every American. The cuts enacted during the Bush administration that reduced rates for every tax bracket will revert back to 2001 levels.

Similarly, the defense sequestration that was part of last year’s deal to avert a debt ceiling crisis will eviscerate the U.S. military with massive, automatic cuts. A lame-duck session will also consider domestic spending cuts, Medicare reimbursement rates, and how to keep the Postal Service solvent.

In all, $560 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts are on automatic pilot unless action is taken.

Falling off this fiscal cliff would have a dramatic impact on the economy. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that if those policies aren’t changed the gross domestic product will fall four percentage points, hurling the U.S. economy into a recession.

But why should the solution to these crises fall to the newly unelected?

Earlier this summer, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) sent a letter to GOP leaders, seeking action to avoid such a scenario.

“The American people could soon find themselves in a perfect fiscal storm: a lame duck session of Congress with a looming threat of a government shutdown creating an unnecessary crisis for the purpose of forcing through tax and spending increases.”

The tea party freshmen in the Republican Party are particularly averse to another lame-duck session. After the 2010 election swept them into power, they stood on the sidelines when Congress passed an extension of the Bush tax cuts in December, along with some spending-hike sweeteners favored by Democrats that the tea party objected to.

“I think the decisions we make in the lame-duck session are not wise decisions for America,” freshman Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said recently at a gathering of conservatives. “It’s better to have the duly elected representatives, not the people that are in that lame-duck status, not our president who may be in a lame-duck status, not a Harry Reid who will be in a lame-duck status. I want the duly elected representatives making the tough decisions that need to be made.”

It is not as if the legislators have had a grueling schedule. After taking off the month of August, Congress came back for a week to pass a continuing resolution that funds the government past the current fiscal year, before heading out again to the campaign trail, where they can concentrate on their own re-election bids instead of the nation’s critical business.

Finding a solution

Finding a solution has been made harder by the Democrats’ total abdication of responsibility. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s upper chamber has yet to produce a budget since President Obama’s first year in office, and President Obama’s annual spending blueprint is usually introduced by Republicans and unanimously rejected by both parties.

House Republicans passed half of the fiscal appropriations bills needed to fund the government. The Democratic-controlled Senate passed zero. House Republicans acted to avert the tax increases and the defense cuts, while Senate Democrats have let the issues linger.

Congress should either deal with these important matters before the election or find a way to put them off and let the newly elected officeholders take up the matters retroactively after they are sworn-in in January.

Americans have a right to have a say in how these matters are resolved. We can’t have a mandate that is declared by voters in November, be reversed by the losers of the election.

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