Lame ducks take advantage of last session

To the surprise of most observers, the lame-duck session of Congress proved to be prolific in passing legislation. Whether it was productive is another question.

The existence of lame-duck sessions, that period in which legislators rejected by voters in November get to pass new laws before the winners assume office in January, is one of the annoying anomalies of our political system. These short-termers allow issues and positions that voters, the supposed ultimate source of political authority, have rejected, to be implemented anyway.

The genesis of this lame-duck session grew from the fact that Congress had not confronted the scheduled sunset of the Bush-era tax cuts and, consequently, existing tax rates were set to increase dramatically on January 1. In addition, Congress had not passed appropriations bills so the government was technically due to run out of money. One might have expected the lame-duck session to confine itself to those issues, especially in a year in which voters more dramatically than in decades rejected the administration’s agenda. Instead, those who had been admonished by voters seized on one last chance to enact portions of their agenda before a new Congress, more closely reflecting public opinion, took power.

From our perspective of individual liberty, however, not all the results were lamentable. The repeal of the “don’t ask don’t tell,” a policy under which homosexual Americans could only serve in the military by lying about who they were, was long overdue. And while one might have preferred a more deliberative approach, Senate ratification of the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia, which points toward modest reductions in these weapons by both countries, was not a bad thing.

The lame-ducks did show some apparent signs of understanding what voters were trying to tell them when they rejected a last-minute effort by Old Bull appropriators to pass an omnibus spending bill larded with pork. That this decision was reportedly part of a deal that secured a few Republican votes for repeal of don’t-ask-don’t-tell, however, suggests that it was more business as usual than recognition of a changing political climate.

Legislators defied what appears to be growing voter sentiment for more limited government by passing a wholly unnecessary food safety bill that gives the Food and Drug Administration more arbitrary power and will accelerate the government-induced process of squeezing out small family and organic farms in favor of giant agribusiness.

President Obama is the main winner in all this legislative activity, but it is premature to call him the “comeback kid” on the basis of a couple of good days. Republican leaders say he will face a different field of play come January with a Republican House and stronger Republican representation in the Senate. How well he adapts and adjusts could mean the difference between give and take on issues, or further polarization among the members.

As to the GOP’s behavior, the question remains: Will these be the Republicans of a rediscovered devotion to cutting back government, or the Old Bulls who were happy to overspend through the Bush years and will dominate most important committee chairmanships in the new Congress? We’ll be interested to see.