The ranks of those writing about the state of American governance have swelled recently as more people are alarmed by its dysfunction. Their growing corpus on the subject has facilitated a much-needed debate about how our politics is broken and what reforms are needed to fix it.
Still, Congress’s decision last week to delay action on some controversial issues, including a decision over whether to fund President Trump’s border wall, until after the November elections, has received little attention from the good-governance crowd. Republicans claimed that punting the issue to a lame duck session helps them fully fund the wall. They feared a divisive debate over issues like funding the border wall would have led to a government shutdown just weeks before voters go to the polls. According to Tom Cole, R-Okla., “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to shut down the government, and we’ll fight that fight when it comes, but this isn’t the time to have it.” Republicans believe that waiting until a lame-duck session to fund the wall increases their odds of maintaining their majorities in the House and Senate. And a lame-duck session preserves the opportunity to act in December should the Democrats instead prevail in November.
But intentionally waiting until a lame duck session to pass legislation, especially dealing with controversial issues, violates the spirit of the 20th Amendment and undermines representative government by making it harder, if not impossible, for the American people to hold their elected officials accountable for their votes.
The Constitution initially required that Congress must meet at least once a year on the first Monday in December unless a different date was set by law. And from 1789 to 1933, Congress’s official start date was March 4 of every odd-numbered year. However, in practice, its members didn’t begin regular business until the following December, 13 months after they were first elected. Members would then work through to the following summer at which point they would adjourn until after the elections. Consequently, Congress’s second session did not usually begin until after the members for the next Congress were chosen. In short, it was a lame duck. (Read more from “Lame Ducks and Congressional Accountability” HERE)