Roasted lame duck for dinner, anyone?

I was driving home Wednesday night and listening to Sean Hannity. He was ranting about the Democrat members of Congress who “were not following the will of the people from the last election.”

He asked why Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid refused to do what the voters demanded. But think about it – the 111th Congress began in January 2009 and contains legislators that were elected in November 2008. This Congress is working under a completely different mandate, one where the Democrat Party’s ideas were given the go ahead.

As we all know, the results of the most recent  election had a different message – slow down on the Democrat agenda, do something different with the economy, let’s see if some cooperation is possible. Now, the electorate is wondering, “Why aren’t they doing what we just elected them to do?”

Well, because the 112th Congress doesn’t start until Jan. 3, 2011, two months after its election.

So for the last few weeks, in Washington, Wisconsin and other states, lame duck legislatures have been hashing out spending bills, contracts and social policy that haven’t been broached in the previous 22 months of the session.

I say it’s time to end the lame duck sessions once and for all. Eliminate the 2 months of lag time between the election and the swearing in. It will stop the mischief and mayhem lame duck legislators can cause and accurately reflect the mood of the voters sooner than later.

Wisconsin did itself proud this year, as outgoing Gov. Jim Doyle and Democrats tried to pass public employee contracts as the movers were packing boxes. They realized every voted was needed and sprung convicted drunk-driving, lame-duckRep. Jeff Wood from jail to vote for the contracts.

But Democrat State Sen. Speaker Russ Decker held to an unspoken belief that goes back to George Washington, that “elections have consequences.” Instead of voting for the contracts (and possibly sticking it to Doyle with whom he had a ‘prickly’ relationship) Decker voted no along with out-going Democrat State Sen. Jeff Plale.

The contracts eventually failed and the state legislature adjourned sine die, not to meet again until the new Republican-controlled legislature takes over in January.

Washington hasn’t behaved much better – a bitter battle to approve a tax rate compromise, the withdrawal of a spending bill that would have extended funding for government programs and added billions in pork, and now little time to deal with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” START or the DREAM Act.

Democrats railed because President Obama read the election results and compromised with the Republicans on the tax issue, but they eventually came around. Now the Republicans are holding up everything else because they feel they received a mandate to do so.

But the real problem is having the lame duck session at all.

Back in the day (prior to 1934) the transfer of power didn’t take place until March. It took a long time to ride a horse or take a train to Washington, so the legislature recessed before the election, celebrated the holidays, then hit the road with newly-elected officials for the long trip to the capitol.

This continued until 1933, when the 20th Amendment was passed and changed the start date of Congress to the first Monday of January and the presidential inauguration to Jan. 20.

The Washington Post even ran a headline after the amendment’s passage – “Present Lame Duck Session Will Be Last,” assuming legislators wouldn’t want to return to Washington during the holiday months.

The legislators of the 1930s didn’t anticipate the growth of air travel or the dawn of the Internet. With red-eye flights, emails and Blackberries to keep legislators in touch and returning to capitols at a moment’s notice, legislators barely take a day off. Example #1 – the Christmas Eve passage of Health Care Reform.

Since November, defeated legislators have moved from their offices in Madison and Washington into basement cubbies while the newly elected or reelected move in and begin to hold caucuses and policy summits.

New Senators and Representatives could be brought up to speed in two weeks. They’re already in Washington and Madison within days of the election and can be briefed on the issues via email. We should really hope they are up to speed on the issues before the election and have a good idea who they will tap to run their offices and assist them in decision making.

All the lame duck session does is create drama (which I do love, since it gives me something to write about) and puts legislation and legislators under Damocles Sword. It holds the American people hostage while political fights persist.

It also expands the campaign season and stops the work of the people. The state employee contracts, the tax rates, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and all the other very important pieces of legislation that have to be decided right now could have been debated and voted on in a thoughtful manner prior to the election, that is if legislators and candidates weren’t so caught up in campaigning for the next term.

But then, that would have given election opponents more ammunition to use against foot-dragging incumbents in both Madison and Washington who were more interested in getting re-elected and not doing the people’s business.

So this Christmas, let us roast that lame-duck and serve up a more effective and responsive legislature for the future.

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