A Very Busy Lame Duck?
Katina Slavkova | December 1, 2022
Why walk when you can fly? As the 117th Congress pushes into its lame duck session, party leaders consider an ambitious array of bills, and historically, it’s not unusual for such sessions to feature major legislative items. While lame ducks of the past decade or two have typically been marked by a focus on spending provisions—a surprise to no one who has observed the breakdown of the federal budget process – one shouldn’t assume major action is off the table. Studies show that voting patterns shift little during such sessions. As we think about what could be in store this time around, we should consider the electoral consequences of the midterms, the spending bills Congress needs to complete and complications around them, as well as the rest of the legislative wish list.
Elections have consequences:
Speaking to reporters only two days after what would turn out to be an improbable midterm election cycle, current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offered, in his characteristically frugal and low key manner, one of the very few undisputed facts of the moment: That amidst all the uncertainty around final vote tallies, “Schumer will still be the majority leader until the end of the year.”
With the Democrats now preserving their slim majority in the Senate and Republicans eking out a narrow victory in the House, there’s understandable anticipation in looking ahead to the political and policy implications of a new and divided Congress come early January. However, Sen. McConnell’s earlier observation serves as a useful reminder that the outgoing 117th Congress, controlled by Democrats in both chambers, will still set the legislative agenda until the year’s end. And even though this Congress has now officially entered into “lame duck” territory, this may be in name only as lawmakers are furiously scrambling to complete a crushing load of critical priorities in the remaining weeks of this legislative session.
Let’s do the (appropriations) numbers:
The most pressing task on the Democrats’ to-do list is finalizing an agreement on a spending package to fund the federal government for the rest of Fiscal Year 2023. The current stopgap measure expires on December 16 and the hope is that congressional appropriators will intensify their post-Thanksgiving negotiations in order to reach a bipartisan deal that averts a costly government shutdown.
Unsurprisingly, Congress opted to postpone serious discussions on a final funding package for after the midterm elections and passed a short-term continuing resolution (CR) instead. Even setting aside some of the obvious challenges in legislating under electoral “duress,” a delayed appropriations process has unfortunately become a depressing and damaging norm that tracks all too well with Congress’s consistent inability to pass federal spending bills on time.
While postponing action on the FY23 appropriations legislation may have been politically prudent and practically necessary, Democrats now have to contend with increasingly more vocal demands by their Republican colleagues who have insisted on further delaying passage of the mammoth omnibus spending package into the new Congress. These demands should not come as a surprise considering that some conservatives had already raised the possibility of pushing the deadline of the current CR until January 2023 in anticipation of a new Republican majority and the leverage it could provide.
And with barely a few more weeks left on the legislative calendar, it’s hard to see how Congress can successfully shepherd an approximately $1.5 trillion spending bill to fruition. At the moment, there isn’t even a basic agreement on what the overall defense and nondefense topline numbers should be. Without that crucial first step, there can be little meaningful progress on negotiating any other spending priorities. The one hopeful note in this otherwise hopeless situation is that the upcoming retirements of both the chair and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee may provide just the right incentive to get a spending deal across the finish line.
However, successful resolution of the FY23 spending disagreements might be further complicated by looming Republican threats of another showdown over the debt ceiling. Democrats could possibly use their remaining time in the majority to deal with this issue, although their narrow margins could prove problematic. Reconciliation, a time-consuming legislative option that they have at their disposal, might not be an optimal solution given the calendar crunch. Democrats will have to carefully consider whether a debt ceiling fight in the outgoing Congress is worth the time and political effort that will be sorely needed for navigating other critical items.
Other major legislation on the line:
There are a slew of other legislative priorities that Democrats are hoping to accomplish while still enjoying control of both chambers in Congress. The Senate has already moved to clear passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, which codifies protections for same-sex marriage. Another big priority is finalizing the annual defense policy bill which has had an unprecedented run of becoming law for 61 years in a row and is generally regarded as a must-pass bill on Capitol Hill. And while the likely future House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has threatened to hold up its passage until next year, there might be just enough bipartisan momentum to continue its successful track record. In fact, Rep. McCarthy himself voted in favor of the House version of the defense authorization bill when it passed by an overwhelming majority in July of this year. And finally, Democrats may also try to tackle reforms to the Electoral Count Act and secure additional aid for the war in Ukraine.
With such a crowded agenda on the line time management skills will be essential. And if we have learned one thing about Congress over the years, it’s that its members have gotten quite adept at navigating tight deadlines, especially when the Christmas holiday is on the line.