Expect Less, Not More, in Lame-Duck Session

Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:14pm

I’m always surprised that federal budget watchers learn so little from even the very recent past.

After almost two years of continuing expectations that the next budget-related opportunity is going to result in the “big deal,” we should all know and admit by now that when it comes to federal spending, revenues, the deficit and the national debt, dreams hardly ever come true.

But the steady series of dashed budget hopes since the 2010 elections — the inability of the Senate to agree to a Congressional deficit reduction commission, the abject failure of the Bowles-Simpson commission, the collapse of the anything-but-super committee and the consecutive breakdowns of the negotiations between Vice President Joseph Biden and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and then between President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — don’t seem to have changed the positive outlook about what is commonly thought of as the next opportunity: the lame-duck session of Congress.

The current fiscal wish, hope and prayer is that this is when all sides will join hands in the long-awaited budget Kumbaya moment and the deal that has been so elusive will come together.

The only problem is that there’s far more evidence pointing to nothing significant happening on the federal budget during the lame duck than to a big (or even symbolic small to medium-sized) deal.

Leave the politics of the lame duck aside for a moment and start with logistics: There simply won’t be that much time for Congress to deal with all of the big budget issues facing it after the elections. The approximately seven weeks between Election Day and the failure-of-the-hardly-
super-committee-triggered sequester on Jan. 2 probably translates into no more than four weeks of workable time when you realize that Congress is not likely to return to Washington, D.C., immediately after Nov. 6, that much of at least one of the seven weeks will be devoted to organizing for next year and that there will be time away from the Capitol for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

This almost guarantees that the comprehensive tax reform package that many say is possible/likely/doable in the lame duck won’t happen. Even if there were an agreement on what that should include — and there absolutely isn’t ­— it would take longer than four to seven weeks just to draft the basic legislation, let alone debate and pass it in committee, debate and pass it in the full House and Senate, come up with a compromise agreement between the two chambers, redraft the compromise and pass the conference report. Add in the need for transition rules, which took a year to draft when the 1986 tax act was adopted, and it’s ludicrous to think that tax reform has any chance of going anywhere during the lame duck.

But the lack of time won’t be the only, or perhaps even the most important, logistical problem. As anyone who has ever been through a lame-duck session knows, rounding up votes almost always is far more difficult after an election than it is before. If past lame ducks are a guide, many of the Representatives and Senators who will not be returning to Congress next year will be more focused on getting a job, packing up their offices and moving their families than on what’s happening in their committees or being debated on the floor. At some point, the retiring and defeated Members will have to vacate their office suites so that the newly elected Members can move in, making it physically and psychologically difficult to focus on work. And, of course, the staff for the soon-to-be former Members, who do much of the substantive work, will also be actively looking for new jobs or moving and also won’t have an office to go to.

As it has in the past, this will create huge headaches for the Republican and Democratic leadership. Not only will the political imperatives have changed for Members who will not be returning next year, but the ability to discipline those who are leaving will be completely eliminated.

Add to that the strong possibility that some retiring and defeated Members may not vote at all, and it’s not hard to see why the close votes that have been typical of almost anything having to do with the budget the past few years may have to or should be avoided during the lame-duck session.

And then there’s the politics of the federal budget. Does anyone really think that the extreme partisanship and vitriol that has only grown since the 2010 elections will suddenly disappear or substantially subside on Nov. 7? Is it really possible that what is likely to be one of the most negative campaigns in U.S. history will make it easier to compromise after the elections are over? No matter what the election results, will either political party be willing to give away its ability to score points on the most contentious issues by agreeing to a compromise on spending and taxes, especially if it doesn’t include tax reform?

I have two predictions based on all of this. First, instead of a big budget deal, the most likely result by far is that stopgap, temporary fixes will be put in place for at least several months (and possibly a year) for all of the major spending and revenue decisions that are coming due. Second, although they obviously shouldn’t be, federal budget watchers will again express surprise and disappointment when this happens.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”