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O’Keefe: Kamikaze Legislators Will Act Recklessly in Lame-Duck Session

Only two years after the U.S. overwhelmingly voted for “change” in the presidential election, it appears the wide majority of Americans are once again dissatisfied with their representatives in Washington, D.C.

[IMGCAP(1)]The pending midterm elections are projected to result in a nearly unprecedented turnover of sitting officials. Expensive government initiatives, an agenda to increase taxes and a general disregard for constituent concerns has ignited a renewed outcry for “new blood” in Congress.

Amazingly, it appears the same fledgling politicians whose jobs are on the chopping block may attempt — in a demonstration of continued disregard for the will of their constituents — to pass more unpopular policies following the election in a lame-duck session.

The planned session is wildly unpopular, according to a recent poll, which shows that 63 percent of the country opposes the idea. The angst toward it stems from the fundamental idea that legislators will not be held accountable to voters for their actions with such a free-for-all opportunity. This provides them the freedom to advocate for policies that fall in line only with their personal beliefs, thus ignoring the people they were elected to represent. Kamikaze issues — ones that are so politically unpopular with the people supposedly being represented by Congress that they are voted down under normal circumstances — suddenly become more appealing when politicians are fearless of an electorate that has already tossed them out.

On the agenda for next month, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and their allies in Congress intend to tackle divisive national issues such as naturalization of illegal immigrants, the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gasses, extension of the Bush-era tax cuts and increases in energy taxes, among others. In all, Democratic leaders hope to act on 20 bills, a last hurrah made by unaccountable lawmakers.

If we use history as precedent, this sloppy session is likely to generate misguided, ineffective and misunderstood policies at best.

Take the 1980 lame-duck session as an example. During that period, Congress passed The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (aka the “Superfund”). This piece of legislation admirably intended to provide funding for the cleanup of toxic waste sites across the nation. It was crafted hurriedly, with no debate and no opportunity for amendments under rules adopted to assure time for passage. The outcome of the speedy procedures is quite predictable, and the Superfund is far from adequate — so much so that Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Secretary James Sief once described it as “the least effective federal environmental statute in history.”

The problems include regulations that make cleanup overly expensive and time consuming, while failing to return the site to a level necessary for future use. Additionally, the law offers no process for the landowner to challenge the declaration of a site as toxic, resulting in considerable litigation and additional expenses for the government. Hurried legislation, such as the bills produced during a lame-duck session, allows little to no opportunity for evaluation regarding merit and applicability, resulting in horrendous policy-making that can negatively affect the country for decades. With this troubling preface regarding the way a lame-duck Congress operates, consider the issues to be acted on in the upcoming session.

Such polarizing and controversial issues as those on the table require thorough contemplation to craft thoroughly vetted, effective legislation that promotes job growth and economic vitality. But this lame-duck session is already threatening our fragile economy with quick-push proposals, such as a tax hike on the oil and gas industry to support more stimulus projects. If forced through, this energy tax legislation would simply raise energy prices for families and small businesses to fund more government spending. Controversial issues such as these require level-headed debate and discussion, not rubber-stamping from outgoing politicians.

Lame-duck sessions of Congress will act to ignite passions in the public and in legislators as they rush for action, resulting in laws that could hamper our country with unintended consequences for generations. Using a lame-duck session to pass substantive legislation in Congress is reckless and irresponsible.

William O’Keefe, chief executive officer of the George C. Marshall Institute, is president of Solutions Consulting Inc.

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