One chart that shows Congress can actually get things done

July 21, 2014

No, nothing is going to get done legislatively between now and when Congress heads out on on its August recess in two weeks' time. And no, when members get back for a brief session this fall, they won't be doing much of anything then, either.  But there actually is a time when Congress has been getting plenty done: in lame duck sessions conducted after the November election but before the new Congress is sworn in the following January.

This chart -- from Fix friend and Republican lobbyist Bruce Mehlman -- shows that lame duck sessions are like Bizarro Congress; it looks the same but things actually get done. (Check out CNN's terrific lame-duck history here.)


In both of the past two congresses, more than one in four laws passed for the entirety of that Congress came during a lame duck session.

In the 112th Congress, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Vice President Biden cut a deal to avoid going over the so-called "fiscal cliff." In the 111th, on the heels of Democrats losing control of the majority, an $850 billion tax and stimulus deal passed. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was repealed and the START treaty was renewed.

There are two major reasons for the heightened productivity:

1) Congress operates like a college kid writing a term paper. They put off the hard parts until the absolute last minute. Not passing some sort of deal to avert the fiscal cliff at the end of the 112th would have led to massive automatic spending cuts and tax increases. Faced with  such a political disaster, a deal got cut.

2) There are always a number of politicians who are either retiring or who just lost in the November election who have very little to lose in the lame duck. They can vote their conscience or do their party leaders a favor and not worry about the political consequences.

The deals cut in the lame duck have caused significant agita among conservative Republicans who insist that their side gets the worst of it. Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips, writing in the Washington Times in May, asked GOP Members of Congress to pledge not to agree to a lame duck session this fall. He wrote:

If the Republican Party is serious about trying to reach out to conservatives, as opposed to the norm of telling them to sit down, shut up, send money and punch the right button, then it is going to have to do something significant to restore that trust.

A meaningful pledge from the Republican leadership would be a good start. The pledge does not have to be complicated. It is a pledge that should be supported by every Republican senator, congressman and candidate.

The pledge is this: There will be no lame duck session.

Phillips may not get his wish, however. As Billy House wrote in National Journal last month:

The stack of unresolved legislation in this Congress is growing higher and higher, including a bill to renew dozens of tax breaks that expired last December and the full array of appropriations bills for the new fiscal year starting on Oct. 1. Decisions are also needed on miscellaneous tariffs, terrorism risk insurance, the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, rechartering the Export-Import Bank, replenishing the Highway Trust Fund, and passing a new surface-transportation bill.

Congress seems unlikely to get to all of that before the election. Lame duck session, here we come!

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Philip Bump · July 21, 2014