Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., won his last election on Nov. 3, 1998. Not enough of his fellow Republicans came with him. Gingrich's party lost five seats in the House of Representatives after a year exploring impeachment charges against President Bill Clinton. Gingrich, who was House speaker, acknowledged the unexpected setback by announcing his resignation. His final act of power was to call a lame-duck session of Congress to deal with the impeachment.
Democrats were horrified and helpless. As far as they were concerned, the election had been a referendum on impeachment, and the Republicans had lost it. Republicans who were retiring or being replaced by Democrats were going to provide votes for impeachment that wouldn't be there when the new, Gingrich-free Congress took over in January. "Listen to the American people," said Democratic investigative counsel Abbe Lowell, one of many members of his party who spent weeks wringing hands, pointing at polls, and watching the impeachment train chug along.
One week before Christmas the majority party held votes on four articles of impeachment, passing two of them. Gingrich cast his final votes in the House for all four articles. Two weeks later, he departed.
This is well-remembered Washington history, and it wraps plenty of yellow "CAUTION" tape around Gingrich's newest cause. His latest petition—a sequel and supplement to campaigns by the Tea Party groups FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity—asks conservatives to send the following pledge to their members of Congress.
I, undersigned Member of the 111th Congress, pledge to the citizens of the State of _____________ I will not participate in a Lame Duck session of Congress. I believe reconvening the Congress after the November 2nd election and prior to the seating of the new 112th Congress, smacks of the worst kind of political corruption. Attempting to pass unpopular legislation subverts the will of the American people and is an abusive power grab.
Twelve years after leaving office, Gingrich sounds like the Democrats who wondered why defeated Republicans like New Jersey's Mike Pappas and Mississippi's Mike Parker were allowed to impeach Bill Clinton, when their Democratic successors won by promising not to. Gingrich's spokesman Tim Cameron told me that the situations are not really comparable. The new problems, he said, are "the clear indications Democrats have given that they would be willing to use the lame-duck session to pass bills that they cannot defend in an election: cap and trade, card check, tax increases, etc.
"There was no question in 1998 about who would be in charge after the election making the lame-duck session in alignment with the consent of the governed," said Cameron, referring to the Republican takeover of the House that many conservatives are now expecting. "Having a lame-duck session for the purpose of ramming through unpopular legislation before a change in power is governing in spite of the will of the people."
What's "inappropriate," of course, is up to who's doing the talking. What's actually being debated here? Basically, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., told a disgruntled liberal crowd at Netroots Nation that his party wasn't "giving up" until the lame duck, and other Democrats have suggested that the lame-duck session might give them another crack at locked-up priorities like the "card check" legislation that union bosses have been pining for, with lower and lower expectations, since the 2008 campaign.