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.
This just isn't going to happen. On Tuesday, in an attempt to debunk the lame-duck panic, Politico's Jonathan Martin discovered, in plain sight, "a host of moderate Democrats who will be on the ballot in 2012 and aren't going to have any more appetite to take a difficult vote." Another factor that hurts the Democrats—one that didn't hurt Gingrich in 1998—is the Senate's method of installing new members. The winners of elections in Illinois, Delaware, Colorado, New York, and West Virginia will be replacing appointed senators, and their terms will begin right away. We won't have Roland Burris to kick around anymore, but Democrats might have to deal with a Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who'd be as likely to support card check as he'd be to emigrate to Luxembourg.
Republicans realize this. Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., who runs the ahead-of-the-curve Republican Study Committee, will keep pushing to forestall a lame-duck session. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, is promising to get a vote on Price's plan. But the office of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who'd have the most to lose in a lame-duck session—the House has basically passed everything Democrats want already—confirms that a lame-duck session is on the calendar and likely to be bland. Republican aides I talked to admitted that the lame-duck session's agenda was likely to be noncontroversial and would probably handle whatever routine business that the blundering 111th Congress couldn't finish in September.
"It's clear there will be a lame duck," said one Republican aide, "but it's not clear there'll much desire for one in either party."
But this same Republican made another point. The possibility of Republicans replacing some appointed Democratic senators, and taking office before the lame duck, depends on Democrats playing fair and seating them, and the aide said that couldn't be assumed: "Scott Brown should have been seated before he was." That was the last time the Republicans repackaged unresolved questions about congressional schedules into an imaginary Democratic "power grab," and it worked. The very day that Brown won a Senate seat in Massachusetts, Sen. David Vitter, R-La.,—who's up for re-election this year—launched SeatScottNow.com and accused Democrats of "playing games about seating Scott in the Senate." While Vitter cried foul, President Obama was saying that "the Senate certainly shouldn't try to jam anything through until Scott Brown is seated," and the Senate wasn't actually doing anything about health care. It didn't matter—raising the potential threat meant getting the Democrats to officially, pre-emptively, back down.
To the sort of liberals Reid was trying to calm down at Netroots Nation, these Republican campaigns about a possible "power grab" that may or may not happen are positively Kafka-esque. One hopeless liberal cause of the past two years has been Senate reform—something, anything, that changes the rules of the world's greatest deliberative body in order to get more bills passed and more judges into their robes. The angst over this bubbled from the blogosphere into the Senate, a process captured this week in TheNew Yorker, where George Packer proposed that the body was "broken" by slowness and sclerosis. Republicans rejected the premise. "The Senate wasn't created to be efficient," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., told Packer. "It was created to be inefficient."
There are a lot of inefficient things about Congress, though. When to seat senators is one. (Remind a Democrat how much fun it was when Roland Burris played the race card over the delay in his appointment by disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich *.) What to do in a lame-duck Congress is another. Republicans have become extremely good at turning the bottlenecks into controversy. And that's why, sooner or later, the meek, goo-goo Democratic calls to change the Senate will be the next inspiration for a campaign to save Congress from a "power grab" that "smacks of the worst kind of political corruption."
*Correction, Aug. 6, 2010: This article originally misspelled the last name of the former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich.