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Reason Foundation

End the Lame-Duck Sessions

It's time to reform Congress.

David Harsanyi
December 1, 2010

It was a moment of inadvertent public honesty. An open C-SPAN microphone caught the often-beleaguered Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), lamenting the impotence of this congressional lame-duck session.

"It's all rigged," Bennet griped Monday. "The whole conversation is rigged. The fact that we don't get to a discussion before the break about what we're going to do in the lame duck is just rigged."

A Bennet aide later explained that, yes, Washington is "broken" and that "we can't move forward on major issues facing our country because of a broken system that is rigged to prevent progress."

We should be so lucky. I join with all Americans who dream of a day when Washington is broken enough to see a Congress rigged to prevent any more "progress." But the trouble with lame-duck sessions happens to be the opposite. It is one thing to be abused by democracy and quite another to be abused by a bunch of rejected, disgruntled and disconnected politicians.

This is a long-standing grievance, of course. Way back in 1932 (I just learned on the Internet), Congress passed the 20th Amendment. Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman recently pointed out that at the time, Time magazine claimed it would "eliminate the legislative influence of Senators & Representatives whose constituencies have already repudiated them."

And lame-duck sessions happen to induce two destructive political habits: avoidance and action.

Avoidance. Remember the endlessly discussed "bipartisan deficit commission"? Practically speaking, it will probably amount to little. Politically speaking, it rigged the election to allow candidates from both parties (Bennet included) to defer their answers on one of the most serious issues of the day. Hey, they were eagerly awaiting the commission's recommendations on the issue, which would arrive, not surprisingly, during the lame-duck session.

But action is far worse.

You could argue that Congress has a responsibility to deal with impending issues—unemployment benefits extensions or tax hikes, for instance. But should "repudiated" officials be involved in making long-lasting decisions for all of us?

Remember that the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002, when a lame-duck Congress relied on post-9/11 jitters to create the largest government bureaucracy in American history. A lame-duck Congress impeached the president in 1998.

This year, the lame-duck session will likely take up the DREAM Act, which would institute a major change in immigration policy, and a new nuclear arms treaty with an erstwhile democracy in Russia. The Senate already passed the so-called Food Safety Modernization Act.

Pollsters tell us that an increasingly cynical electorate, which viewed government as overreaching, was responsible for the dramatic political reversal in November.

So does it make any sense to allow rejected senators—such as Robert Bennett, Blanche Lincoln and Arlen Specter—to help kill earmark reform in the Senate this week, seeing as none of them will experience the consequences of voting to preserve a corrupted process?

Congress has the choice to convene or not—the latter being a true victory for progress.

But if Washington is "broken," it is by those who abuse power in the name of moving forward. And the lame-duck Congress is just another example.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his website at www.DavidHarsanyi.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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