Lame Duck Panic, Part II

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 9 2010 10:48 AM

Lame Duck Panic, Part II

Over the weekend, Mickey Kaus and I argued about the possibility of a busy lame duck session; Kaus put the dialogue up here . Kaus' belief, based on what Democrats have said publicly and based on conversations with sources, is that Democrats might* try and ram immigration reform, and maybe other bills, through the lame duck Senate. My understanding, based on my own reporting, is that this wouldn't really be possible, and that Democrats are talking about the lame duck to pander to their base and to negotiate with Republicans in the here and now. On one point, Kaus is right—by declaring their outrage over this, Republicans are erasing the slim possibility of Democratic lame duck miracle-working. But neither of us touched on another aspect of this. When Newt Gingrich and Republicans portray the lame duck session as a "power grab," they're doing some might bold jujitsu. Lame ducks have always been able to do some last acts of governing on the way out the door. If Barack Obama loses re-election, he will have three months in which he's allowed to sign bills, sign executive orders, and issue pardons. The governors who lose or retire this November will do the same thing. This is just one of the bargains our framers (and the framers of state constitutions) made with majoritarians; voters have to live for a few more months with the choices they made at the last elections.

Is this the right way to run a country? Sure, it's not how parliamentary democracies work. In the U.K. or in Germany, if you lose an election, you're out—you have no say in governance. We let presidents—Bush, Clinton, Truman—lose midterm elections and get the rest of their terms to work alongside the new majority parties. In other political systems, they would have been ousted right away. But we allow some slack between the decisions of voters and the assigning of political power. The campaign against the lame duck is along the lines of the 2003 recall campaign in California. In both cases, conservatives argued that voter anger demanded immediate, extraordinary measures to take away the power of the fumbling politicians that voters had elected last time around.

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*I originally wrote "will," which isn't what he was saying.

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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