Right now, both the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate are busy at work. But the newly elected U.S. representatives and U.S. senators aren’t the ones who are casting votes and engaging in negotiations this week. That would be the outgoing members of the last Congress, including those who lost reelection.

The next Congress, the 118th, won’t take office until Jan. 3 – so, until then, Nancy Pelosi remains speaker of the House, and members of both chambers who either retired or even lost reelection are still in office. This is referred to as a lame-duck session. Although it’s fairly common in Washington, it rarely happens in Augusta; absent a special session, the Maine Legislature is out of session until the new members are sworn in. It also doesn’t happen in most other Western democracies, where the parliament is dissolved before the election.

Although they’re fairly routine in Washington, there’s a fundamental problem with lame-duck sessions: They’re essentially undemocratic. Those members who have chosen to retire and have no future ambitions can vote freely without regard for any political consequences.

Sometimes this does allow certain things to get done that might not have happened otherwise. Earlier this month, for instance, the U.S. Senate overcame a filibuster on the Respect for Marriage Act (sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins), which expands marriage equality rights for same-sex couples at the federal level. It was good to see Congress legislating on a social issue and making real progress, rather than treating it as a political punching bag.

While the strategy was perfectly understandable, it was troubling that Democrats purposefully stalled the bill until the lame-duck session. They were essentially counting on the votes of some Republican senators who were retiring – and who, therefore, didn’t have to worry about any potential backlash from their constituents.

In this case, it was to get something positive done, but we are increasingly seeing leadership using this as a tactic to avoid political fallout or nasty fights over big issues. Congress will also be considering how to keep funding the government during the upcoming lame-duck session, and how to proceed with another piece of legislation with which Sen. Collins has been heavily involved, the Electoral Count Reform Act.

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Now, to be sure, we can’t eliminate lame-duck sessions without fundamentally restructuring our system of government; at times they’re a necessity. If the country were attacked, for instance, it might be reasonable to call Congress back into session to authorize a declaration of war – or, these days, for an authorization for the use of military force. That’s perfectly reasonable. It would also be reasonable for Congress to come back into town if there were a natural disaster that required emergency funding (they’re in charge of writing the budget), or to confirm a nominee for a vacant position – although most appointed positions could be left vacant until the new Congress takes office.

What’s wrong, though, is that nearly every issue being debated in this lame-duck session is either not an emergency or is something that could have been handled much earlier. When it comes to government funding, Congress should have passed a budget earlier this year – especially since Democrats held a majority in the House and the Senate. They had every opportunity to either pass a longer-term continuing resolution or a real budget. Instead, they purposely let funding expire right in the middle of the lame-duck period purely for political advantage. Now they can consider the next government funding mechanism without worrying about politics.

Lame-duck sessions are even more striking in years following redistricting, since some of the defeated members will have attempted to run for reelection in completely reconfigured districts. This means that, even more so than members who chose to retire, they are completely free agents: They’re not representing anyone anymore.

While it’s fashionable to say that retiring members of Congress can “vote their conscience” in a lame-duck session, it’s troubling to think that we have to rely on elected officials being unanswerable to voters to get things done.

No matter what the issue, it’s long past time for both parties to get their job done on time, while fully representing their constituents, rather than relying on gimmicks like the lame duck to avoid responsibility. We may not be able to totally eliminate lame-duck sessions, but their use ought to be limited to true emergencies, not exploited for political convenience.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel


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