For the next few weeks, Washington faces a brief, and important, window of opportunity. Suspended in time between an election that’s just over and another that’s already starting, the lame duck session of Congress has a critical question to answer.
Are the legislators capable of performing the job they were actually elected to do? Can they put politics aside and take action that’s vital to the national interest? Can a lame duck quack?
“We are going to try to have as productive a lame-duck session as possible,” vowed Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, at a post-election press conference. “It’s going to be heavy work, long hours to try and get much done.”
Lame ducks can be unusually fruitful, in part because retiring members are freed from crippling political constraints and want to make a final mark before departing Congress. This year, the incentives for action are amplified by the election results, which produced a classic recipe for paralysis come January. Each chamber will be run by a different party, and both leaders will operate with exceedingly narrow margins.
Moreover, presidential politics will quickly pick up steam in the new year. Donald Trump has already announced his bid for a second term, and other GOP hopefuls are tentatively starting to travel to early primary states. While Joe Biden has not made a final decision, all indications point to another run.
So before electoral maneuvering consumes the capital, lawmakers need to focus on, well, making laws. and actually, they’re off to a good start. A bill that would codify the right to same-sex and interracial marriage is moving toward passage with the support of 12 Republican Senators.
Strikingly, three of them are retiring and are less beholden to the party’s hard-right base: Roy Blunt of Missouri, Rob Portman of Ohio and Richard Burr of North Carolina. In addition, five of the GOP renegades are women: Joni Ernst of Iowa, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming.
Historically, female senators from both parties have been more willing than their male colleagues to work across partisan lines. Hopefully this nascent Reality Caucus can be energized to focus on other issues, starting with a measure to fund the government before it runs out of money on Dec. 16.
President Biden has also asked for nearly $40 billion in aid for Ukraine and $9 billion worth of COVID-19 funding, but the Democrats can’t get too greedy and bring the whole package crashing down — a real possibility. Their priority should be aiding Ukraine now, since the Republicans who will control the House in January keep expressing misguided skepticism about writing “blank checks” to support Kyiv’s war efforts.
“In fact, the costs of stopping Mr. Putin’s attempt to redraw the map by force are far smaller than the costs of letting him get away with it,” warns a persuasive Washington Post editorial. “Failing to face Kremlin aggression would encourage more of the same, and the United States has already seen how such conflict can inflict pain on average Americans.”
The other major focus of the lame-duck session should be another fiscal inflection point: raising the national debt level, which is due to hit its current ceiling in the middle of next year. Again, irresponsible Republicans are making noises about using the debt crunch to exact concessions from the Biden administration, a dangerous and cynical strategy that can be thwarted by action now, while Democrats still control both chambers.
That would be a heavy legislative lift, but one the Reality Caucus should understand is essential. As budget expert Peter Orszag wrote in the Post, “Any Democrats averse to taking such a painful vote now should consider how much leverage their party will lose once Republicans control the House — and how much higher the risk of default will be then. It’s generally not a good idea to enter a negotiation with a ticking time bomb and a counterparty willing to let it go off.”
A final priority: passing legislation that would clarify election rules and block the sort of devious efforts Republicans employed after the 2020 balloting to deny Biden’s rightful victory. Yes, election deniers absorbed major setbacks at the polls this year, but the dangers to democracy still lurk out there, especially if the next presidential election is as close as the last two.
So Congress, do your job. Don’t just make speeches or recite slogans; solve problems. That’s not too much to ask.