It’s lame duck season on Capitol Hill, and rarely has there been a more important moment in congressional history to do something good, something profound, something that will make a difference before a divided government is likely to take hold.
Though the much-prophesied red wave failed to materialize on Election Day and Democrats retained control of the Senate, Republicans still appear poised to take control of the House with a slim majority. The GOP’s own internal squabbles and its collection of bomb-tossers (come on down Representative Matt Gaetz) foretell a period of at best uncertainty, at worst chaos and dysfunction.
So these next few weeks loom large — a last, best chance to get at least a few critical pieces of legislation done while the grown-ups are still in charge. And that means not just Democrats, but a dwindling number of Republicans who have engaged in the kind of bipartisanship and civil discourse that used to make Congress run, some of whom have paid dearly for reaching across the aisle.
The list of musts is a short one, but is long on political realism:
Never again should the nation’s future and the peaceful transition of power be put on the line because of ambiguities in the once-obscure 1887 Electoral Count Act — a law that former President Donald Trump and his band of followers attempted to use to subvert democracy in his quest to remain in power.
In the Senate, Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia negotiated an Electoral Count Reform Act earlier this session, which now has at least 30 cosponsors, including 15 Republicans. The bill addresses that critical moment on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump continued to urge Vice President Mike Pence to reject state electors — an effort aided by a handful of senators.
The bill would make clear that the constitutional role of the vice president as the presiding officer on that day “is solely ministerial” and does not include the power to “determine, accept, reject, or otherwise adjudicate disputes over electors.” It would also increase the threshold for raising an objection to electors from the current one member of the Senate and the House to one-fifth of each branch.
And it protects the result of the popular vote in each state by removing a provision in an outdated 1845 law that could allow state lawmakers to declare a “failed election” in their state, the popular vote notwithstanding. That was the provision Trump lawyer John Eastman attempted to exploit.
The House-passed version of the bill, sponsored by Democrat Zoe Lofgren and soon to depart Republican Liz Cheney, both members of the committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, differs in small technical ways and shouldn’t be difficult to reconcile with the Senate given its critical nature in the days ahead.
Debt ceiling poker
Surely playing high-stakes games with the nation’s debt limit and, therefore, its economic future is no way to run a country. These are still fiscally precarious times and the notion of the United States defaulting on its debt — not to mention the international upheaval it would cause — is simply unthinkable. Well, unthinkable except among some Republican hard-liners eager to flex a little political muscle if their numbers increase in the next session. Some will indeed want to extract a price — spending cuts, perhaps — for their cooperation. The brinksmanship of Republicans in 2011 and a narrowly averted economic crash should be lesson enough. And it did cost the nation $1.3 billion in needless borrowing costs. But some folks will never learn.
That makes it essential to raise the debt limit during this lame duck session in such a way and to a level that can get the nation through the next election cycle if at all possible.
Keeping Congress honest
Members of Congress are by the nature of their business privy to a raft of information — intelligence briefings, Treasury briefings, or, say, advance word of just how dreadful the COVID-19 outbreak might get. And while insider trading was prohibited by a 2012 law, a recent New York Times investigation found about a fifth of lawmakers or close family members traded stock in the past three years that raised potential conflicts with their committee assignments.
When last heard from, leaders of both branches of Congress were working on separate proposals — with bipartisan support — to ban members from actively trading stocks while in office and requiring them to either divest their current holdings or put them in a blind trust. The bills would also carry substantial penalties for violations.
House Administration Committee Chair Lofgren was negotiating a bill in that branch and similar efforts were afoot in the Senate but both efforts were put in the “after the midterms” pile. Now the time has come to actually do something, and waiting till next year really isn’t an option.
Politics has often been described as “the art of the possible,” and there’s nothing like a lame duck session of Congress to drive home that notion. However slim a Republican House majority might be, life will change in 2023. This list is far from exhaustive. Another Ukraine aid package would help solidify gains there. This may also be the last best shot for overdue immigration reforms.
But this must be a time for making use of the remaining days to do what is possible — there is not a moment to waste.
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