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Why wait to seat the new Congress?

By Dylan Matthews

I quoted it in this morning's Wonkbook, but Bruce Ackerman's op-ed calling for legislation to abolish the lame-duck session of Congress seems a little funny to me. It would make a lot more sense to just inaugurate members of Congress immediately following an election, rather than have a two-month period where nothing can happen or where a just-ousted Congress can pass legislation.

In 1932, when the 20th amendment shrunk the lame-duck period from five months to two, it was reasonable to allow time for vote counting. Today, with odd exceptions such as this year's Senate race in Alaska, victors are generally known the next day. Allowing a week or two for logistical reasons makes sense, but there's little reason for a larger break. Sure, recounts could drag into the next Congress, but that happens anyway. Al Franken took office in July 2009, long after the 2008 election.

This would be tougher to enact than Ackerman's solution, as it would require a constitutional amendment. But two months is a long time for Congress to not be able to pass legislation, or for a Congress many view as illegitimate to be in power. What's more, forcing an immediate transition would force candidates to think about things such as staffing and committee assignments during the campaign, which could result in more prepared and informed challengers.

Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Dylan Matthews  | November 12, 2010; 3:28 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms, Congress, Government  
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"force candidates to think about things such as staffing and committee assignments during the campaign, which could result in more prepared and informed challengers."

...and a lot of wasted time and effort, since about half of them won't win.

Posted by: mudlock | November 12, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

I worked for the Senate briefly for a Senator not running for re-election and two months seems reasonable. You aren't just electing one person who has to move a box of stuff into an office, you are hiring (and ousting) an entire staff worth of people. Logistically, it takes a while to find these people and get up and running. If you had them start two weeks after an election you'd still have unproductive months legislatively while people hired staff. Not to mention, the office ousted needs to archive their stuff which takes time.

Also, our elections take place in November. Between Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years it's not a particularly productive time of year anyway.

Posted by: megankeenan | November 12, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

There is absolutely no need for a constitutional amendment to enact this change. All that is necessary is to legislatively change the date elections are held, such as shifting it into December.

Posted by: mivade | November 12, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

There are actually many House races still uncalled. Imagine if the election had been a little closer and party control rested on those 7 House races. Two months is a perfectly reasonable time, and there's also nothing wrong with a lame duck session.

Posted by: jfung79 | November 12, 2010 9:45 PM | Report abuse

"...for a Congress many view as illegitimate."

Yes, by all means let's amend the Constitution to please uninformed idiots. "Many" view the President as illegitimate too, since, you know, he's a secret Kenyan Muslim and stuff.

The last time I checked, representatives are elected to a two-year term, not a 1-year-and-10-months one. Just because an election happens during their term, doesn't suddenly make a congressman who wasn't re-elected "illegitimate." They still have every right to legislate(regardless of party) for the remainder of the congressional session.

I suppose you could change it so the new Congress starts just after the election and only once would members see their terms truncated, but I fail to see the need to do so.

This "the people voted for change! lame-duck sessions subvert the will of the voters!" argument is nonsense. Whatever passes or doesn't pass it's because the people gave them the power two years ago. The voters this year will get what they chose in January, when the 2008 "batteries" run out.

Finally, I don't buy for a second the baseless assertion of forcing an immediate transition to get "more informed and prepared challengers." I think challengers already do that. What about incumbents? it's already hard for Congress to move their rears on legislation(or to do so without pandering to the people about to vote) during an election year, you want to add leadership elections, the committee appointment process and staff organisation to that?.

It's two months, usually little happens and even then most of that time is the winter break, get over it, it's fine.

Posted by: Yuriel | November 13, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

The other argument that supports lame duck sessions is that it actually frees up the Member of Congress to do the right thing, instead of the thing that he or she thinks will keep him or her from losing the election. Look at some of the issues (such as taxes) that were avoided because people were afraid of a wrong move that would cost them the election, even when the polling was there to support certain majority positions, such as letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire, but renewing them for the middle class. Of course, we have yet to see whether those Blue Dogs that came up short and will be heading home permanently will now vote to support their party during the lame duck, or whether they feel compelled to interpret the election as some sort of mandate to support Republican positions. But the prospect of not facing re-election did seem to free up Sen. Voinivich's vote on the small business bill earlier this fall, so it does affect voting behavior sometimes.

Posted by: reach4astar2 | November 13, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

I doubt that it would have any positive benefits - if anything it is more likely to force either snap hiring, or reliance on secondees from industry.

Posted by: albamus | November 14, 2010 9:29 AM | Report abuse

A good idea. Lame duck is called so for a reason. It has no value. At worst, it is time for mischief. Times have changed and there is no need for such a long period so new people can travel from South Carolina or Maine to D.C. The election should mark the end of the term and the new should start two weeks or so later.

Posted by: dheisenberg | November 15, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

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