Saturday, December 8, 2018

Time to end lame duck sessions

Lame-duck legislative sessions—when outgoing lawmakers convene to enact new policy after an election but before their replacements have been sworn in—are a horse-and-buggy political arrangement that somehow survived into the 21st century. Designed for a time when new elected officials had to travel long distances to make it to the capitol, they are mostly harmless, like an antique shotgun hanging on the wall—at least until recently. Today, Republicans in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina are weaponizing lame duck sessions to thwart the will of the public as newly elected officials sit on the sidelines, watching their predecessors straitjacket their mandates to govern.


We run our democracies based on a mixture of rules and norms. Rules are often unwieldy and overly constrictive, but they become necessary when norms of good behavior collapse. This is what is happening now within the Republican Party, as its members thumb their noses at the most fundamental norm for elected officials: to honor the will of the people. There appears to be a growing belief within the GOP that elections are advisory, and subservient to elected officials’ wishes. Nationally, Republican Party leaders have been notably silent on what is happening in Michigan and Wisconsin, effectively communicating to party members that such tactics will be accepted.


What are some alternatives to lame-duck sessions? One option is the parliamentary model: Once the election is over, the old parliament is disbanded and cannot execute new policies. If there is a delay in seating the new parliament, a caretaker government maintains existing policy. If a state still wants its legislature to be in session in November and December, that state could change the timing that a new legislature takes over to, say, mid-November, rather than waiting until January. We don’t even have to look overseas to pursue this option. Alabama, Indiana and Nevada all swear in their new legislators on the day after the general election. And in Florida, state law requires that “the term of office of each member of the Legislature shall begin upon election,” meaning new legislators take office immediately once the votes are tallied.

Another option is the supermajority approach: Any new legislation passed in a lame-duck session would have to be passed by a large enough majority to prevent one party from adopting changes that don’t have widespread support. The transition period would stay the same, but only issues that have broad consensus—for instance, responding to some sort of emergency—would survive.

I agree wholeheartedly, and enacting term limits for Congress would be another good move.

Don't hold your breath. Neither will happen.

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