In the Land of the Lame Duck, Economic Consensus Reigns

Going to need more than a walker to get anything done. (photo: ShellyS via Flickr)

When I wrote a preview of the lame duck session back in September, I called it “the fattest lame duck in captivity.” Because the Senate punted on so many items throughout 2010, it left a lot on the table to be completed, or at least attempted, in the November-December session. Looking back at that list, Congress did accomplish several of these goals:

Bush tax cuts – EXTENDED
Government funding – PASSED UNTIL MARCH
Defense authorization bill – PASSED
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal – PASSED
DREAM Act – filibustered
unemployment insurance – EXTENDED
Doc fix – EXTENDED
Catfood Commission – didn’t get required votes
tax extenders – A FEW PASSED in the tax cut bill
EPA regulation blocking – rejected
Renewable energy standard – not brought up
Child nutrition – PASSED
Food safety – PASSED
Chinese currency bill – not brought up
Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind – not brought up
Cybersecurity – not brought up
FAA, NASA, Intelligence authorization – not sure
Mine safety – filibustered
South Korea free trade agreement – inked, but not brought to Congress
Judicial confirmations – ABOUT HALF CONFIRMED

In addition, you have a telework bill, the CALM Act (lowering the volume of TV advertising relative to the programming), the COMPETES Act (science and math education policy), a reduced 9-11 health and compensation bill, and more.

Now, it’s fun to hear idiots like Rep. Tom McClintock invoke Oliver Cromwell’s message to the Rump Parliament, “Now depart and go, I say, in the name of God, Go.” Clearly, Republicans didn’t have the best time in this lame duck session, as quite a bit of the people’s work got done. I don’t think it’s an unfair comparison to make between the 111th Congress and the activist Congresses of the mid-1960s, though I think it says more about the intervening Congressional sessions than it does this Congress.

There are a variety of reasons for the success of the lame duck. Democrats still had big numbers and knew this was the last chance to use them. Alienated so-called “RINOs” like Bob Bennett and Lisa Murkowski had reason to go against the tea party grain. The legislation passed had broad, 80-20 majorities in the public. Democrats occasionally communicated effectively, as on the 9-11 health care bill. And the threat of major filibuster reform concentrated the mind on the Republican side a bit.

But what did the Republican letter at the beginning of the lame duck say? Until the tax issue and the funding of the government gets worked out, they would not move forward on anything. That was the threat. And in fact, they won on both of those counts in a big way. They got the Bush tax cuts extended for two years, and they can hold out at that time for another extension. And they stopped an omnibus spending bill and secured a short-term continuing resolution, which blocked funding of health care and financial reform and gave the next Congress an early opportunity to set spending priorities.

That was really all they cared about, as Robert Reich argues. . . . [cont’d.]

When it comes to protecting the fortunes of America’s rich (mostly top corporate executives and Wall Street) and maintaining their strangle-hold on the political process, Senate Republicans, along with some Senate Democrats, don’t budge.

Bipartisanship is possible on foreign policy. It’s even possible on certain social issues, such as gays in the military. But it’s not possible when it comes to the core economic and political reality of the United States today — the almost unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top, and the way it’s being used to corrupt our democratic system.

In this respect, Democrats are better than Republicans, but not much better. Both parties have rejected efforts to close tax loopholes that would treat much of earnings of hedge-fund and private-equity managers as ordinary income rather than capital gains (taxed at 15 percent). Both parties have refused to cap the size of Wall Street’s major banks or force the banks to aid of distressed homeowners whose mortgages they hold.

Neither party has had the intestinal fortitude to suggest that taxes should be permanently raised on multi-millionaires. Neither will take the initiative on significant campaign finance reform.

It really gets worse than that. Inside the continuing resolution is the two-year pay freeze for public employees. The defense authorization bill funds the war in Afghanistan with basically no strings attached. Inserted in that defense bill were strict limits on the transfer of detainees out of Guantanamo, making federal trials almost impossible. Stripped out of that defense bill was a provision from Roland Burris to allow VA hospitals to perform abortions paid for with private money.

The bipartisan consensus on the corporate-backed economy, the war machine foreign policy, and even some areas of social policy held in the lame duck session, and set up many consequential fights ahead. You cannot divorce the tax cut deal from the looming spending fight. You cannot divorce the START treaty from the fading possibilities of follow-on nuclear disarmament treaties. These things are more lasting than ephemeral victories at the end of Congress. We can savor the victories, but the fight on many key issues, especially the economy, hasn’t even been taken up.

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