With the elections done, Congress has returned to Washington to finish the final session of the 112th Congress. There is much to be accomplished in the lame duck session, including critical negotiations among the White House, the democratic-controlled senate, and the GOP-controlled House over the impending budget sequester as the fiscal cliff looms. What compromises can we expect from either party during the lame duck? How have the election’s results have affected either party’s strategy for the lame duck session? Beyond the fiscal cliff, what issues will legislators tackle in these final weeks?
On November 7, Brookings expert Sarah Binder took your questions on the lame duck Congress in a live web chat moderated by Vivyan Tran of POLITICO. Read a transcript of the chat below.
12:30 Vivyan Tran: Welcome, let's get started.
12:31 Comment from Scott Neuman, NPR: Will a deal to avert the fiscal cliff be less likely in this session because the turnover in Congress was relatively small and there are fewer lame ducks who can waddle off the stage after voting for a compromise?
12:34 Sarah Binder: This is a great question -- and it gets to the heart of our notions about lame duck sessions. Historical lame duck sessions could promise some drama since there was such high levels of turnover in Congress and high levels of "shirking" by the lame duck members. In recent congresses, however, turnover is low. Perhaps 90+ percent of MCs are returning to the House and Senate. So we really shouldn't expect politics in the lame duck session to look too much different than the politics of the regular session -- namely a lot of stalemate and kicking of the can down the road. If there's a dramatic exception here, it's because of the looming fiscal cliff -- not your usual situation for a lame duck session!
12:34 Comment from Noa: Do you think those that have lost their seats are no longer motivated to do work?
12:35 Sarah Binder: Great question, Noa! Historically, we do see lower rates of participation from these lame duck members in these final sessions. So, yes, motivation definitely goes down for some lame ducks -- particularly those still contesting their races at home! That said, participation rates in House voting are pretty high, so even if lame ducks curtail their voting, participation remains relatively strong.
12:36 Comment from Brian Alexander: Thank you for taking our questions. Can you please discuss the historic performance of lame duck sessions, in terms of productivity. Also, what factors impact productivity, such as partisanship, divided government, or others, and how should we expect the fact that this has been a "status quo" election to shape whether the lame duck gets anything done. Again, thanks!
12:40 Sarah Binder: This is a central question for understanding these quirky (quacky?) lame duck sessions. Keep in mind two trends. First, lame duck sessions tend to look like close mirrors of the regular session -- primarily because there are so few lame ducks. Think about that incredibly productive lame duck session in 2010 -- Start treaty, don't ask don't tell, tax and stimulus deal, etc. That occurred in a period of unified Democratic control with near filibuster proof Senate majority. No surprise it was so productive, even in light of the House Dems loss of the chamber in the Nov. elections. Compare that to 2008 lame duck. What happened? Divided government produced little -- in fact the Dems key initiative -- the auto bailout bill -- was killed by a GOP filibuster in the Senate. So, lame ducks do carry over much of the politics of the regular session. Second trend, the agendas of these lame ducks are typically carried over of unfinished business -- typically appropriations bills. In that light, this year's lame duck looks a bit different with the fiscal cliff approaching.
12:41 Comment from Jason, Arlington: Will the GOP's loss during the election impact its strategy during the lame duck when it comes to the fiscal cliff?
12:42 Sarah Binder: Good question. And a tough one. If we see compromise from the House and Senate GOP, it'll be hard to know whether it's because they read the tea leaves from the election or because they really did not want to be blamed for going over the fiscal cliff. That said, I really don't see House /Senate GOP giving in on their central tenet of keeping all income tax rates low. I think we're very far away from the parties reaching an agreement on these tough tax and spending issues.
12:43 Comment from JJ: Are there any concrete deliverables that you foresee happening during Lame Duck before the new Congress begins in January?
12:46 Sarah Binder: I do think there are a few things that are likely to come up and to be addressed. 1) Disaster aid will probably be tackled , though it's hard to know if conservatives will agree to "unpaid for' disaster aid without a broader agreement on taxes and spending. 2) Farm programs expired Sept 30th. I don't think the country wants to go back to 1941 agricultural law. I doubt that House GOP is ready to put aside their internal differences that stalemated the Farm renewal bill earlier this year, so most likely we'’ll see a one year extension of existing law to buy time for a broader agreement this coming year. 3) Congress never finished the defense authorization bill. I suspect we'll see a streamlined version since the Senate won't have time for a full-fledged debate with a gazillion amendments – it’s typical practice for that bill. So some things will be passed/enacted, though they tend towards "unfinished business" - -which would be keeping with the norm for lame duck sessions of recent decades.
12:47 Comment from M. Allen: Long-term tax and spending reform will likely be kicked down the road -- but what parts of it will Congress have to wrestle with during the lame duck?
12:50 Sarah Binder: This is the most important and toughest question. The answer depends on whether the two parties really want avoid going over the fiscal cliff. If they do, then we'll probably see one of two outcomes: 1) kick the can down the road. That is, the parties will temporary turn off sequester and extend the tax rates temporarily. 2) some down payment on spending cuts from the sequester and a "framework" for how the parties will proceed on a longer term package in the coming year. I suppose it's possible that's we'll see something closer to grand bargain, but I'm highly skeptical. If there's no agreement that prevents going over the cliff (or down the slope ...), then all bets are off on the timing for a broader deal.
12:50 Comment from Taylor S.: The tone post-election has changed in official syntax from both Boehner and President Obama - does this really reflect a shift in momentum to cooperation in the new term?
12:53 Sarah Binder: Call me cynical, but I think these are opening signals from the two parties (or leaders). Obama wants to claim every bit of political capital that he can from the election to claim a mandate for raising taxes on the wealthy to restore fiscal sanity. And he's signaling to his supporters that he's not giving in/up (at least not yet!) Boehner's olive branch is at once a sign that he recognizes the Romney loss and a signal to his House GOP that they have to be responsible and go to the table. Of course, Sen. GOP leader McConnell isn't really waiving any olive branches. So, we're getting two signals from the same party. Either way, I don't see this as a new dawning era of cooperation. But certainly the parties know that they don't want to be blamed if things go sour and off the cliff.
12:53 Comment from Gronk: How would you react to the assertion that the fiscal cliff is not actually a "cliff" per se, and in comparison to the debt ceiling actually seems minor? My understanding is that the fiscal cliff isn't something that is actually going to impact the US credit rating or Global markets in the way that not raising the debt ceiling would have, and even if we go off the "cliff" it's something that we can fix the next day, or the next week...
12:57 Sarah Binder: Another great question. I think many economists would agree with the statement that this is more a slope than a cliff -- at least assuming that Congress and the president address the fiscal issues after Jan1 even if they don't do so before. Having said that, I'm not so sure that it's a slope *politically.* GOP will likely be blamed for going over the cliff. That doesn't serve their political position very well and diminishes their ability to be perceived as constructive players in any deliberations this coming year. At the same time, it would be a governing failure for Democrats -- it just doesn't look good! And those political costs could be important in producing at least a short term agreement or kicking the can for a bit. All that said, markets may think there's an economic cost to going over the cliff-- even if the worst of the effects aren't felt or could be reversed. I don't think the parties actually want to find out, though of course, I could be wrong about that. :)
12:57 Comment from Gyan: Do you expect a recess appointment for the head of the Federal Housing Finance Authority?
12:58 Sarah Binder: Great question. This is a lingering issue that has been a thorn in the side of folks who want a more aggressive housing recovery policy. I doubt Obama wants that particular fight right in the middle of the fiscal bargaining. My guess is that he waits till the new year given the 55 Dem plus Indy senators who might bring confirmation of a regular appointee more likely. Perhaps!
12:59 Sarah Binder: Thanks for all of your questions. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them!
12:59 Vivyan Tran: Thanks everyone, see you next week!