How Lame Ducks Might End Up Dead Ducks (Politically)

Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund had a piece talking about the Democrats’ plans for the post-election lame-duck Congress – and how some are contemplating a frighteningly ambitious agenda once the pressure of trying to get re-elected is off…

“I’ve got lots of things I want to do” in a lame duck, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W. Va.) told reporters in mid June. North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, wants a lame-duck session to act on the recommendations of President Obama’s deficit commission, which is due to report on Dec. 1. “It could be a huge deal,” he told Roll Call last month. “We could get the country on a sound long-term fiscal path.” By which he undoubtedly means new taxes in exchange for extending some, but not all, of the Bush-era tax reductions that will expire at the end of the year.

In the House, Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters last month that for bills like “card check”—the measure to curb secret-ballot union elections—”the lame duck would be the last chance, quite honestly, for the foreseeable future.”

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate committee overseeing labor issues, told the Bill Press radio show in June that “to those who think [card check] is dead, I say think again.” He told Mr. Press “we’re still trying to maneuver” a way to pass some parts of the bill before the next Congress is sworn in.

Other lame-duck possibilities? Senate ratification of the New Start nuclear treaty, a federally mandated universal voter registration system to override state laws, and a budget resolution to lock in increased agency spending.

It might be a bit presumptuous to suggest Fund reads the Hayride, but our own Mark Zelden mentioned this exact possibility back on May 8. Zelden wrote:

History is usually a very good guide when making predictions about the behavior of Democrat-controlled Congresses and lame-duck sessions. Although some will look at 1994 as the model, the real year to review and fear is 1980.

In the aftermath of the 1980 Reagan landslide, Democrats suffered massive losses and control of the US Senate for the first time since the 1950′s. Confronted with the realization that their control of the legislative branch was coming to an end and an activist Republican Administration was coming in January of 1981, President Carter and the Democrat leadership in Congress went on a legislative spree that is unprecedented in sheer scope and size.

Legislation passed at the end of 1980 included two major bills with little or no debate that continue to cause problems to this day.

The first was a major land grab in Alaska, more commonly know as the “Alaska Lands Bill” that saw the federal government take control of millions of acres of land and prevented drilling in some of the most productive oil and natural gas deposits in the country. This is causing enormous headaches today as we rely too heavily on foreign sources of energy when we could provide much higher percentages domestically, especially in Alaska.

The second major bill was the Superfund environmental legislation (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act {CERCLA}) that implemented major taxes on energy producers and spawned a wave of litigation around the country. Superfund is a ticking time bomb today as the taxes to pay for the fund have expired but the cleanups in many areas of the country have yet to take place.

Should conservatives around the country be fearful that President Obama, Speaker Pelosi and likely defeated Senate Majority Leader Reid will not attempt to push through items like Cap and Trade, Card Check and other dangerous bills pending before Congress?

We saw how these people operated during the debate over health reform BEFORE the threat to their re-election began to materialize. Without this fear and with the looming threat of a likely GOP House and large GOP Senate caucus in January 2011, we may not be able to count on 41 GOP Senators holding the line against Democrats with nothing to lose.

And in the aftermath of Bob Bennett’s electoral demise, who knows how many other squishy GOP Senators will be voted out between now and election day and thus will have no incentive to block big government legislation through the first week of January? This is a serious concern – but what options are available to the defenders of the American Republic under this scenario?

Traditionally, it’s considered gauche – at best – to do significant policymaking in a lame duck session. Particularly in the case of divisive legislation the incoming party opposes. As Mark notes, we may be about to see a reprise of what happens when Democrats lose an ironclad majority, and it’s incredibly likely the country at large will regard a last-ditch legislative assault in November and December as an assault on American Democracy itself. A nation already boiling over at unresponsive, incompetent and imposing government cannot possibly be pacified by a fresh round of public sector intrusion after they’ve voted for the opposite.

Conservative organizations like FreedomWorks have jumped into the fray on a prospective lame-duck agenda, demanding that Democrats pledge not to do any substantial policymaking during an unaccountable session. Such pledges can be reneged on, however, and there isn’t a lot anyone can do to a congressman or senator who has already been turned out by the voters – or voted back in for another term.

That said, while passing wholly unpopular legislation like Card Check, a VAT tax or, perhaps most importantly, some form of cap-and-trade legislation might fulfill Democrat dreams, the voters could well make them nightmares in future years. A poll released earlier this week by the Institute for Energy Research shows that energy taxes won’t just turn voters off – they’ll make them hold a grudge (link requires subscription)…

The survey describes congressional discussions as focusing on “new energy taxes, including a new tax on every gallon on gasoline.” The description says the goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but adds that “all businesses, consumers and households would have to pay additional costs under the congressional proposals.”

The description goes on to outline both standard opposition and support statements for new climate policy, including that the taxes would reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, encourage energy efficiency and benefit the environment “at relatively little cost.”

Still, the poll found that roughly 70 percent of voters opposed such a policy when given the descriptions, while 28 percent expressed support.

The poll also found 47 percent of voters said they believe energy taxes would cause jobs to be lost, compared to the 15 percent who believe jobs will be created. The poll showed nearly identical results when respondents were asked about the impact on economic growth and that about 70 percent of voters disagreed with the notion that the taxes will reduce global warming. The poll does not attach dollar amounts to the proposals.

Enacting major legislation against a 70 percent headwind is something which simply isn’t done. It’s worth questioning whether it’s ever been done in the history of the country. But the poll went further:

The poll describes the Kerry-Lieberman bill by saying, “Senators who have written global warming legislation acknowledge new taxes on gasoline will lead to higher prices at the pump but they insist it is not a gasoline tax imposed on consumers.” It then asks voters if they agree or disagree that this amounts to a gasoline tax.

Sixty-three percent of voters did say they see the proposal as a tax, compared to 33 percent who do not. In a follow-up question, 61 percent said they are unwilling to pay any amount more in gasoline taxes in order to address global warming.

The poll also shows that 3 percent of voters picked global warming as the issue that “Congress and elected officials should address first,” and out of environmental issues, it trails support for boosting energy efficiency and reducing water pollution.

A 70 percent headwind on cap-and-trade and energy taxes. A 61 percent headwind on Card Check. A 67 percent headwind on a VAT tax. A 68 percent headwind on “comprehensive immigration reform.” None of the major pieces of Democrat legislation being bandied about as potential fodder for a lame-duck session have even marginal support among the public at large. The idea that all or any significant portion of them would be jammed down our throats along the same lines as Obamacare – the repeal of which is still desired by 60 percent of the country – is one which represents something new.

What will be the effect of such tactics? What will they do to the concepts of representative government and civil discourse? That’s unknown. What is also unknown is whether the Democrat Party would be able to survive as a viable national entity in the wake of such shenanigans, particularly considering that its lone remaining standard-bearer is an increasingly unpopular president whose effectiveness even with an aggressive Democrat majority for the past 18 months has been questionable at best.

Democrats concerned about the future of their party – not to mention the nation as a whole – might want to consider the implications of abusing the coming lame-duck session.

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