Lame-duck history, Part 1: 1940-1970

With the presidential election over and quite satisfying results for most progressives, the next step in our political process is for the present (111th) Congress to address a multitude of issues. Only a fraction of the Fiscal Year 2013 budget has been approved. The most important issue emanates from Congress’ decision to set an “over the cliff” date for both revenue and expenditure cuts. It’s essentially a 50-50 deal in which revenue would be enhanced approximately two trillion dollars and spending would be cut by a similar amount. The revenue enhancement would come from repealing the Bush tax cuts, ones that not only effected the wealthy but virtually all tax payers. The expenditure cuts would be evenly split between domestic programs and military projects.

What will undoubtedly happen is a lame duck session of the 111th Congress. A lame duck session is one that comes after a semiannual election (held in even number years) and before the swearing in of all members of Congress for the next session (held on January 3 of odd numbered years). The natural time period for lame duck sessions is in November and December. Since 1940, there have been sixteen lame duck sessions of Congress.

Some sessions have not been particularly productive, doing nothing more than postponing legislation until the next Congress begins. Others have been quite fruitful, particularly in times of national emergency. By necessity, this year’s lame duck session will require strong action to keep the federal government running properly. or at least in a way that makes it safe to kick the can further down the road.

A do-nothing lame-duck session

After the first session of the 76th Congress in 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Congress into an extraordinary session before the election, in September, to deal with the threat of war in Europe. The Congress declined to send major new proposals such as aid to Britain, to raise new taxes, and to increase the debt limit. This was a clear example of a “do nothing” lame duck session. Even with his power and strong political support, FDR was not able to get Congress off dead center.

Getting ready for a post-War world

In 1944, Congress dealt with some pretty heavy issues including questions of peacetime universal military training extension. They saw World War II coming to an end and wanted to be prepared for any future wars.  This was the genesis of compulsory military registration for males at the age of 18. At first it was just a nuisance, and then during the Vietnam War it became a hot political issue. The 76th Congress also agreed to increase Social Security taxes, something that would seem to be close to impossible now, even though Social Security and Medicare are in much more need of revenue enhancement than was the case in the 1940.

Contemplating nuclear war

It was six years until the next Lame Duck session. The Korean War caused Congress to reconvene. In 1950, one of the main topics of discussion was the possibility of using nuclear weapons, especially since Chinese troops had become involved in the conflict. Congress did not take any action on this proposal, one that properly was in the hands of the executive branch and President Truman. He had already addressed this issue to end World War II in the Pacific theater. However, Congress did approve supplemental appropriations for defense and atomic energy. President Truman asked the Congress to take action on statehood for Alaska and Hawaii, but neither territory was admitted as a state to the union until the Eisenhower years.

Dealing with Joseph McCarthy

1954 was one of the most important lame duck sessions, particularly for the Senate. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin had been terrorizing the Senate and numerous individuals (named and unnamed) with accusations of being Communists. In almost all cases he was wrong. The Senate select committee submitted its censure resolution on November 9, 1954. By December 2, the final action was completed. This “long national nightmare” was over as McCarthy and his charges were over as he was stripped of his committee chairmanship. It lifted a tremendous burden off hundreds of people who were under accusation as well as millions of Americans who considered McCarthy’s actions to be a serious threat to their basic human and civil rights.

One step forward, two steps back

There was a twenty year hiatus of lame duck sessions until 1970. Seven key issues were brought before the Congress: electoral reform (as we can now tell, little was done), occupational safety and health, equal rights for women, manpower training, funds for the supersonic transport plane (which still has not been built in the United States), and the Clean Air Act (which Congress passed). Congress did complete work on two of the seven proposals. In all, President Nixon vetoed four measures that were passed during the lame duck. Congress did not override any of these measures. Even though this seemed to be the “liberal, or at least moderate and reasonable, Nixon was not able to generate the kind of support that he sought from the lame duck Congress.

Delay, kick, repeat

Through 1970, Congress has done very little in lame duck sessions except when emergencies forced them to do so. The question is whether the “over the cliff crisis” that we will face between now and December 31, 2012 will be considered a serious enough threat to the country that it will demand action. At this point, a new (but really old) solution is being proposed: kick the can further down the road. The present policies on revenue enhancement and expenditure cuts could be delayed another year “to give Congress more time to consider the options.” In fact that may be the best idea because a 2012 lame duck session may be too short for a thoughtful solution to be developed. Of course, if action is postponed long enough, the issue may become one that the next lame duck session will have to consider in 2014.