The Huffington Post’s Matt Fuller reports that a group of conservatives are calling for Congress to simply not meet at all after Election Day in November. As Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) put it to Fuller: “If you look at these lame ducks, you know, the American public gets screwed.”
It’s true that lawmakers on both sides have long complained about the haphazard, backroom deal-making that goes on in many of these sessions. This often leads to giant spending deals packed with goodies for both sides, an outgoing majority’s final gasp of legislating and a stalled deal reached with corners cut.
Although sometimes ugly, there’s been a tacit agreement among lawmakers that these sessions are necessary. How else would the government get funded in an otherwise deadlocked Congress? Just wait till the election is over, and you’ve got political cover — two full years for people to forget about a bad vote (or forgive one).
“It’s usually the party leadership deciding to hold these, and the rank-and-file is just holding their noses and doing what has to be done,” said Michele Swers, a congressional expert and professor at Georgetown University.
But it looks like a significant share of conservatives — especially the 40 or so who are members of the House Freedom Caucus leading the charge to kill the lame-duck session — are done playing by those rules. They’d rather get nothing done than something that they don’t agree with. We saw this dynamic tested in an abortion debate this fall when conservatives’ attempt to cut off federal funds for Planned Parenthood opened the possibility of a government shutdown.
This fall, conservatives would especially like to avoid having to vote on three deals that are looming over the lame duck.
First, it looks increasingly likely that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) won’t be able to pass individual spending bills throughout the year, meaning it’s possible he and Democrats could reach a deal in the lame-duck session that raises spending much more than conservatives want it raised. Just like a spending deal Ryan reached last year with Democrats, conservatives won’t have much of a chance to stop it.
Second, it’s possible Congress could approve President Obama’s trade pact with Pacific nations that many House conservatives oppose.
And third, while a bit more far-fetched, it’s also possible Senate Republicans could confirm President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Merrick Garland, after the election — especially if Hillary Clinton is the president-elect.
Former House historian Ray Smock says canceling the lame-duck session would be unprecedented but not illegal. Congress can set its own schedule, so if both House and Senate leaders agree not to meet, they can simply not meet.
It’s another question entirely whether party leaders would agree to do it.
As Fuller notes, if Congress didn’t meet after the election, it would basically be done for the year on Sept. 30. That’s an incredibly tight deadline for Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to get everything done they need to by then — not the least of which is passing a spending bill to keep the government open. Plus McConnell has every incentive to keep the Senate in session, if even just to bang the gavel for a few minutes every few days, so that Obama can't appoint Garland to the Supreme Court or make other judicial appointments. (If the Senate were out of session entirely, Obama could, although it's unlikely.)
And if Clinton wins the White House and Democrats take the Senate — or even the House of Representatives — in November, Republicans will most certainly want to stay in session to do what they can before relinquishing control of Congress.
All that’s to say canceling the lame-duck session is a long shot, but we certainly see why conservatives would want to do it. The best way to frame this whole lame-duck debate is as just one more flashpoint in congressional Republicans’ ongoing quest to jam up Congress and prevent it from doing much of anything — because they assume that anything it does would be bad.