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Lame Duck Session Attendance in Question After Spate of House Resignations

The resignation of Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-CA), who cited his increasing parenting burden for his leaving Congress, and then announced hours later that he would take a job in DC at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP, starting tomorrow, thousands of miles from his home, is more than just a lesson in the Capitol Hill/K Street revolving door (though it is that). It’s another reminder that we have an incredibly shrinking Congress, with five vacancies, two of which will not be filled until the 113th Congress commences next January. The three special elections and the expectation of lots of members declining to return to Washington for the lame duck session takes on added significance because of the fiscal cliff, the series of decisions that need to be made before multiple policies expire or trigger at the end of the year. Given that the margins on getting through the fiscal cliff promise to be narrow, every vote counts. And those votes are up in the air right now.

Right now, there are five vacancies in the House: NJ-10 (Donald Payne died in March), WA-01 (Jay Inslee resigned to focus on his gubernatorial election), MI-11 (Thaddeus McCotter resigned after a voter signature fraud scandal in July), KY-04 (Geoff Davis resigned July 31 for personal reasons) and CA-18 (the aforementioned Cardoza). The first three vacancies (NJ-10, WA-01 and MI-11) will get filled on November 6, with special elections concurrent to the general election. Whoever comes out of those special elections can join Congress immediately and participate in the lame duck session. The likely outcome would be no pickup for either party. However, those races will have different district lines than the district lines used for the regular Congressional election, which could lead to all sorts of strangeness. What’s more, the late-game implosion of McCotter led to a retired Santa Claus, Kerry Bentivolio, being the Republican candidate. So Democrats could notch a pickup.

Davis and Cardoza won’t be replaced at all until the new Congress takes over. So that takes one member off the board on each side. Right now there are 240 Republicans and 190 Democrats in the House, and if form holds, you’d go up to 241-192 for the lame duck. However, you have to take into account the members of Congress who may not be interested in coming back for the lame duck session. Relative to 2010, when you had a fairly high workload for the lame duck, there will be substantially more turnover. Thanks to redistricting, several members will face one another in races, and the loser may just opt not to come back. The changes in the map have already forced a number of retirements and resignations. And, you have a handful of members who lost their primaries, including Republican Cliff Stearns in Florida just yesterday.

The House leadership, on both sides, has very little to incentivize these true lame duck members to come back to work in November and December, regardless of the stakes of the policies involved. And the stakes happen to be enormous. You’ll have the Bush tax cuts, the trigger cuts, unemployment insurance, the alternative minimum tax, the doc fix; in all, trillions of dollars of fiscal issues. But they will get decided by a markedly smaller House of Representatives.

Regardless of the policy path that ultimately gets decided, some members of both parties are going to be unhappy, probably enough to force bipartisan support for any resolution to pass. That’s where these numbers take on a good deal of significance. The loss of a Republican stalwart like Geoff Davis, or a Blue Dog like Cardoza, could actually be relevant in the lame duck.

We’re not going to know until we get to November how the makeup of Congress in the lame duck will shake out. But it definitely bears some scrutiny.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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