Lame-duck congressional sessions, by definition, include the visible presence of legislators who have not been reelected at the most recent election. In the House and Senate chambers, the lame ducks are both the walking dead and a graphic reminder to their surviving colleagues of their own political mortality.
The rampant Republican disunity on display these last days of the rump congressional session represents the real "official count" from the 1982 elections. The November results were not --as the White House bravely pretended--"a wash." The 1982 elections turn out to have been a major Republican defeat.
That's not the way it was just two years ago. Then, the defeat of 28 Democratic House incumbents--including the chairmen of four House committees and 14 subcommittees, all of whom were available for viewing in that year's lame-duck session--sufficiently impressed/intimidated the remaining Democrats to make organized opposition to the Reagan program very unlikely. This December, there were 26 Republican incumbents who had been defeated in November on the House floor as role models of a sort for the surviving Republicans.
But an even more troublesome 1982 election return for Republicans, and especially for their respected Senate leader, Howard Baker, may actually be the way five GOP Senate incumbents -- Danforth of Missouri, Durenberger of Minnesota, Chafee of Rhode Island, Stafford of Vermont and Weicker of Connecticut--won in 1982. All five won while, and maybe by, emphasizing their political independence. None of the five was believably tagged by an opponent as a Reagan rubber stamp.
In politics, which is the art of the imitative as well as of the possible, that lesson will not be lost on any of the 19 Republican senators facing reelection campaigns in 1984. Republican unity was the first and most serious casualty of last fall's campaign.
The leading Republican architect and engineer of Republican unity on Capitol Hill and the man whose life has been made more difficult by the '82 returns is Howard Baker. As some evidence of the respect the Tennesseean commands on both sides of the aisle, Missouri Democratic Sen. Tom Eagleton says admiringly of him: "Howard Baker would make a great president." New Hampshire Republican Sen. Warren Rudman, who is the consensus choice for Senate Rookie of the Year, says directly: "Howard Baker has the most extraordinary political judgment I have ever seen; his instincts are almost supernatural."
But Howard Baker will need more than the praise of Tom Eagleton and Warren Rudman in 1983. Republican senators will be making a show of their independence from unpopular administration policies, making that earlier GOP congressional unity only a wonderful memory. The victorious example of Lowell Weicker is not one to inspire party discipline or unanimity.
The House Republicans will be weaker in 1983 and a lot more scared about their own futures. Ronald Reagan's landslide is now, for most of them, a dimly pleasant memory. One House Republican leader admitted, with some institutional pride if intraparty disdain, that Reagan had gotten better treatment from House Democrats than Senate Republicans during the lame-duck session.
It's a good bet, if bad news for the Reagan White House, that in 1983 the obstructionists in Congress will be, just as they have been for the past two weeks, members of the president's party.
And those are the official returns of the election of 1982.