Web Chat: The Lame-Duck Session of Congress

Come January, the Republican Party will take control of the House, and the Democrats who still control the Senate will see their majority whittled down to a razor-thin margin. Nevertheless, the existing Congress – including those who lost in the midterms elections – is returning to Washington for one last session, known as a “lame-duck.”

At a minimum, the session must act on a budget resolution to keep the government in operation. The fate of the other important legislation — including the expiring Bush tax cuts and the new START treaty — remains to be seen.

Darrell West took your questions in a live web chat on the lame-duck session of Congress moderated by Assistant Editor Seung Min Kim of POLITICO.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:32 Seung Min Kim: Welcome, everyone. Today, we’ll be chatting with Darrell West, Brookings’s director of governance studies, on the lame-duck session.

12:32 [Comment From David: ] How do you think the lame-duck session will handle the expiring Bush tax cuts?

12:33 Darrell West: There is agreement among Democrats and Republicans about extending the Bush tax cuts for those earning under $250,000. The complicated part is those who make more than that. My guess is there will be a compromise for high wage-earners that extend the tax cuts for 1-2 years so we can get the economy moving again.

12:33 [Comment From Rebecca: ] Do you think compromise on any big issues is likely? Or will Republicans hold their ground until January?

12:35 Darrell West: Compromise is the only way anything will get done in this highly polarized Congress. However, neither party appears to be in much of a mood for compromise. Somehow, in today’s world, compromise has gotten defined as lacking principle or not standing up for what you believe. That makes it very difficult to resolve problems.

12:35 [Comment From Danielle: ] How do you expect work on the federal budget to play out?

12:36 Darrell West: Congress has a continuing resolution before it that will extend funding for federal agencies. That is something members absolutely have to pass. If they don’t, non-critical agencies will have to shut down, and we will have the first political crisis of the post-election time period.

12:36 [Comment From Susan: ] Do you foresee a scenario where work in Congress will grind to a halt due to stalemate?

12:37 Darrell West: There is no doubt Congress will have difficulty getting much done due to partisan disagreements. The only question is whether members will find a handful of issues where they can work together. Given the sluggish economy, members need to figure out ways to pass legislation that will encourage job creation and further long-term economic development.

12:37 [Comment From Fred: ] Votes on several controversial issues were postponed until after the election. Is Congress likely to act on these issues soon, or will they continue to postpone?

12:39 Darrell West: The most controversial issues won’t get resolved in the lame-duck session. Democrats hope to bring the DREAM Act, an immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for those who attend college or serve in the military. That measure got 55 votes in favor in the Senate, but failed due to its inability to garner the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.

12:39 [Comment From Mark: ] When was the last lame duck session and what happened?

12:41 Darrell West: There is a lame duck session every two years following the election. How much gets done depends on how much the political environment has changed. In a situation like what we have today, where party control has shifted, it is not likely that members will be able to pass much legislation.

12:41 [Comment From B Woods: ] Do you think there is a chance for the America COMPETES Act to be reauthorized?

12:42 Darrell West: I hope the COMPETES Act gets reauthorized because it is vital to long-term competitiveness. It provides money for higher education and research and development. But passage depends on the Senate assembling the coalition for that bill.

12:42 [Comment From Sally: ] What do you make of the leadership elections? Seems more like continuity than change.

12:44 Darrell West: The most surprising feature of the election is the combination of the change element of public opinion with the continuity of congressional leadership. Often times, when one party loses big, they change leaders. In this Congress, though, we still will have a Democratic party led by Reid and Pelosi. I think members decided that in a highly partisan environment, experience was better than bringing in new leadership.

12:44 [Comment From Mark, Greenbelt, MD: ] What’s your take on Pelosi’s decision? Can any rebelion succeed? And is her decision to run – and win – for minority leader good or bad for her party?

12:46 Darrell West: Pelosi looks like she has the votes to retain her leadership position. Her success cuts both ways. She helps Democrats by having been through the legislative battles and knowing where the votes are. The downside is she will remain a lightning rod for criticism from Republicans, similar to what happened this year.

12:46 [Comment From Jake: ] Is there a chance that the outgoing Dems will go willy-nilly and vote crazily on some legislation since they basically face no repercussions?

12:47 Darrell West: This is unlikely because Republicans will be united in stopping Democratic legislation and some Democrats will be extremely nervous about their 2012 prospects. Electoral defeat often serves as a deterrent to major legislation.

12:47 [Comment From Jennifer Sundlin: ] Doesn’t it feel like the voters voted for change and got increased gridlock in return? What is going to break this cycle and get us back to a Congress that can actually gets something done? Is our system just broken?

12:48 Darrell West: Our legislative system is broken now. Voters want change and problem solving, but have members who are polarized and not in a mood to work together.

12:48 [Comment From Joan: ] Will the lame duck tackle the Chinese currency issue or is that something that will have to wait for the new session?

12:49 Darrell West: Members have little to no leverage over the Chinese currency. They will delegate that issue to the administration.

12:50 [Comment From Jackson: ] And how do you think the polarization in Congress reflects on the President?

12:51 Darrell West: The polarization in Congress existed before President Obama and reflects divisions in public opinion, the news media, and our legislative body. Obama has sought to reach out to Republicans, but has not gotten much assistance from them, even on ideas they proposed.

12:51 [Comment From Bill: ] What’s your take on the results the Tea Party candidates saw in the elections?

12:53 Darrell West: The Tea Party was very successful in winning Republican primaries and a few general elections. There is no doubt it helped mobilize GOP voters. But by nominating extremists in Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado, the Tea Party turned what would have been Republican victories in those states into Democratic wins. With stronger candidates, Republicans could have picked up three more Senate seats, and we would have had a 50/50 Senate.

12:54 [Comment From Paul: ] What can Dems do during the lame-duck session to avoid being viewed as a totally defeated and weak roup?

12:55 Darrell West: Democrats should focus on passing the continuing resolution and addressing the economy. Those are the issues voters care about and the thing that would help the party and the country over the next two years.

12:55 [Comment From Esther: ] If the federal government does come to a halt because the budget isn’t extended, which party will benefit from that?

12:56 Darrell West: That is the $64,000 question. During the Clinton administration, the government shutdown clearly benefitted Clinton. Whether that happens this time depends on how each side plays their cards and how voters judge their respective efforts.

12:56 [Comment From Joanna: ] What about nominations? I haven’t seen any reporting on that, but aren’t there a lot of appointees still waiting for Senate action?

12:58 Darrell West: There are a number of administration appointments awaiting Senate confirmation. These are people who have been judged qualified, but are being held up by members for reasons unrelated to their personal qualifications.

12:59 Seung Min Kim: And that’s it for today. Thanks everyone for joining in, and a special thanks to Darrell for his insights.