- Last Updated on Wednesday, 29 December 2010 00:00
- Published on Wednesday, 29 December 2010 00:00
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Most lame duck sessions of Congress are dismal affairs. This is particularly true if there are a large number of turnovers, or if there is a change in the control of either House. When this happens the members usually don’t have much energy left over for any new legislation.
But that’s not what happened this year.
In a matter of six weeks the Democrats, who will shortly be surrendering control of the House, and dealing with a much reduced majority in the Senate, passed more noteworthy legislation than some Congresses manage to pass in an entire session. What’s more, while it can be called “Democratic” legislation, it wouldn’t have happened without some GOP help. And this, for many, is the real story when it comes to writing the last chapter of the history of the 111th Congress.
During the past six weeks, and much of it during the past two weeks, Congress passed a host of landmark bills. Several were thought to be lost causes, but the sudden and unexpected support of Republican Senators brought them back to life. What got this session rolling, after fits and stops, was the tax compromise. This legislation extended unemployment compensation and renewed the Bush era tax cuts. Then there was the repeal of “Don’t ask don’t tell.” With this bit of legislation gays can now serve openly in the military. It’s one of the most dramatic changes in military personnel policy in our nation’s history and it wouldn’t have happened without the support of six GOP Senators.
Senate approval of the START Treaty, governing a mutually agreed reduction in nuclear arms with Russia, was also thought to be in trouble, but 11 Republican Senators decided they would buck the majority leader, Senator McConnell, who opposed the bill, and vote with the Democrats. The approval, under the Constitution, requires a two thirds vote. The treaty, a cornerstone of the President’s foreign policy, was a major victory for Obama.
Of course, those two bills would be important enough, but they’re just a couple examples of what got passed during this lame duck session. Another bill, again brought back to life, legislatively that is, was the Food Safety Act. This legislation represents a major modernization of the government’s authority to oversee food safety at all levels of production. This bill had strong bipartisan support.
However, while the President and the outgoing Congress have a right to a victory lap or two, the Congress still left behind some major legislation that didn’t get done – namely the appropriations for the 2011 budget. Congress was supposed to have these done before the start of the 2011 fiscal year on October 1. That day came and went without a single appropriations bill (there are 12) being passed. The Democrats decided that a debate on the budget, particularly given the size of the deficit, wouldn’t be good politics before the election. Of course, as it turned out, that bit of political calculus didn’t mean much on Election Day.
There was a strong effort to push through an omnibus appropriation, a sort of a mega appropriation, that would fund the entire government for the entire fiscal year. This failed when the Republicans in the Senate decided to put up a stink. It was too big and had too many earmarks for their taste. Finally, the best the Congress could manage was another quirky legislative tool called a “continuing resolution.” Under the terms of this bill the government has the authority to keep operating until March. That gives Congress until then to work out a budget. But with the new Congress that’s going to be challenging.
The new House, with its brand new freshman class, is going to want to make some major cuts in spending. This bunch, many elected with Tea Party backing, is adamant about reducing government expenditures and isn’t inclined to compromise. So just how the incoming Republican majority in the House is going to work with a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic President, each strongly resistant to cutting as much as the Republicans want, is going to the big legislative story of the new year.