As Fiscal Cliff Approches, Congress Can No Longer Kick the Can Down the Road on Taxes and Spending

In spite of the turnover in Congress following the 2010 election, the lame duck session that followed was the most productive since World War II. Seven major pieces of legislation, ranging from extension of the Bush tax cuts and a 2% payroll tax reduction, to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, to a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty were passed and sent to the president for signature. Congress needs to duplicate this feat. Using history as the model will not be enough.

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in January, 1933, set the stage for the modern day lame duck session by establishing January 3rd as the day a new Congress begins each session. When Congress meets following the 2012 election they will be faced with two major issues, extending the Bush-era tax cuts and the implementation of the sequester contained in the Budget Control Act of 2011.  If history is any indication, the 19th lame duck session will not meet the task.

The first lame duck after ratification of the 20th Amendment was the 76th Congress in 1940. The Congressional Record of this session is less than 500 pages.

During the lame duck sessions of 1942 and 1944, the country was at war. Issues facing Congress included war powers, tax code changes, social security, reconstruction finance, curbing regulatory agencies, and monetary policy. Neither Congress took action on any of these. In 1948, the next lame duck session held continued this do nothing trend meeting for just under one-half hour.

In 1950, President Truman was determined to have Congress take action on legislation he considered crucial. Chinese troops had just crossed into Korea; however, Truman sent Congress five measures including aid to Yugoslavia, supplemental defense appropriations, taxes, rent control, and statehood for Alaska and Hawaii. All except the statehood measure were passed. The next lame duck session in 1954, which would be the last one for 16 years, is familiar to all who saw the movie Charlie Wilson’s War. The session dealt with Senator Joseph McCarthy.

When Congress next went into lame duck session in 1970, Congress was faced with welfare reform, women’s rights, workplace safety, clean air, housing, manpower training, and more than half of the required appropriations bills. Congress only passed the clean air and housing measures along with two appropriations bill. 

The 1974 lame duck session thought its only issue would be the confirmation of Nelson Rockefeller as Vice-President. Instead, President Ford presented a 10-page list of items he wanted passed. In addition to confirming Rockefeller, Congress acted on most of Ford’s requests.

Following major gains by the GOP in the 1980 election, it was thought no action would take place on major legislation that was left pending in Congress. However, in one month Congress passed a budget, major environmental legislation including nuclear waste and military pay and benefits. Ronald Reagan was not as successful in 1982. There was tension between the president and the GOP controlled Senate and the Democratic controlled House. Budget and deficit issues remained unresolved. Continuing resolutions were passed but not much else.

The 1982 lame duck was followed by a twelve-year gap. The lame duck session of 1994 met to pass a major trade agreement. Both chambers passed the bill in less than a week and the session was adjourned. The 1998 lame duck was also a one issue session limited to the House; the impeachment of President Clinton. Not to break this pattern, the 2000 lame duck session, faced with an undecided presidential election only passed a series of continuing resolutions to fund the government.

The need for continuing resolutions didn’t change in 2002. In addition to passing those however, this was the lame duck session immediately following 9/11. By the end of November, Congress passed legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security and several security related measures. This atmosphere of cooperation continued during the 2004 lame duck. Funding measures were of course required. This session also was faced with increasing the debt limit, additional security measures including immigration, welfare reform, and gun control. Except for welfare reform and gun control, required action was taken.

Taxes and appropriations were the issues facing the lame duck of 2006. This was the election where Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, but bipartisanship was still the name of the game. Tax benefit extensions along with a major foreign policy initiative with India and overhaul of the Postal Service were passed. Of course, so were the continuing resolutions. The bipartisanship evident in this session was nowhere in sight in 2008. The Senate met for seven days, the House only five. Financial bailout was the issue. President Bush tried to pass a $14 billion loan to the auto industry but was stopped by the Senate. The $700 billion to the financial services industry passed before the election was all Bush would get.

Congress cannot kick the can down the road. Egos and personal rivalries must be left outside. President Obama or President-elect Romney must use everything at their disposal to encourage Congress to act responsibly. In the end though, it will be up to the members of the House and Senatethose re-elected and those not. As evidenced above it can be done. If they make the wrong choice, don the parachutes because we going over the edge and it could be a long drop.