Friday, August 13, 2010

Lame ducks, lame history

For the first 150 years of the republic, each Congress normally held two regular annual sessions, both running from December to March. The second session always took place after the elections for the next Congress had taken place: the incoming Congress, in fact, did not take its seats until thirteen months after having been voted in by the people.

Now that was a lame duck session, and it was a regular feature of the American political landscape. Among actions taken by lame duck Congresses in the early republic were the 1801 expansion of the Federal judiciary (and the ensuing swift confirmation of sixteen judges appointed by outgoing lame duck president John Adams); the 1809 repeal of Thomas Jefferson's trade embargo law; and a series of measures adopted in 1813 escalating the war with Britain and adding tens of millions of dollars to the Federal budget—with no way to pay for them. This last occurred in spite of major gains posted by the anti-war Federalist party in the elections in the fall of 1812.

Since 1935, when the Constitution was amended to have the new Congress assemble just two months after election day, seventeen lame duck sessions have been held during the November-December period following the election. Some have been merely pro forma sessions, but substantive business has also been transacted, even in the face of a major political shift or even a reversal of political control in the upcoming Congress. Lame-duck actions included a new excess profits tax in 1950, the Senate censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970, trade reform in 1974, budget bills in 1980, a Congressional pay raise and denial of funding for the controversial MX missile in 1982, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1994, the sweeping intelligence overhaul in 2004—and most notoriously of all, the House vote to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998. (You can read a full report on all of these in a Congressional Research Service study, available as a pdf here.)

Newt Gingrich, the twice-divorced/newly Catholic/perennially ethically challenged Republican presidential hopeful, has this past week been manufacturing vast quantities of simulated moral outrage over the prospect that the Democrats in Congress might hold a lame duck session this year. Right wing nut blogs are full of angry exhortations to their followers to send their congressman a  "pledge" (the favorite device of moral bullies everywhere) drafted by Gingrich in which they would penitently acknowledge that a lame duck session "smacks of the worst kind of political corruption . . . subverts the will of the American people and is an abusive power grab."

Many commentators have pointed out the remarkable chutzpah of Gingrich, who was the very man who reconvened the House in a lame duck session to vote on the Clinton impeachment—and then himself resigned as Speaker in the wake of his party's election setbacks just a month before. (Though there was also his growing ethical and corruption problems, which included setting up phony charities that spent their money on, among other things, having a former Gingrich staffer write his biography). Others have noted that there in fact is little chance the Democrats will even hold a lame duck session, and that if they do there's still the obstacle of needing 60 votes in the Senate to pass anything (by the way, how's that for "subverting the will of the people"? We don't seem to hear much from the right about this issue as we did when the shoe was on the other foot and it was the Democrats who were the minority in the Senate).

But what is really despicable about this latest Gingrich ploy actually cuts deeper, because it is part of a larger and concerted effort by the Republican Party to delegitimize political opposition altogether. The new profile of Gingrich just out in Esquire magazine quotes Gingrich as viewing this kind of no-holds-barred attack politics as just the nature of the game. But it's not. Winston Churchill, a political fighter with the best of them, always drew a furious line at anything that disrespected the rule of law and Parliamentary democracy. He fervently believed in the legitimacy and importance of the opposition party in a democracy. That of course is a true conservative position, one of respect for the continuity and augustness of institutions.

But Republicans long ago ceased being a conservative party in any rational sense of that word, and are quite happy to undermine respect for and trust in the institutions of democracy themselves if it offers a path to power. Not just the Tea Party fringe but the mainstream of the Republican Party has increasingly been employing revolutionary language that is far beyond the accepted bounds of political disagreement in a democratic polity. They don't just say that they oppose Democratic policies and offer an alternative the voters might choose; rather they declare that the Democrats are "railroading" and "cramming through" legislation (by that nefarious device known as voting); they are engaging in a "power grab" (by holding a session of Congress in accordance with utterly uncontroversial precedent); they are employing "unconstitutional" measures and bringing about "the end of freedom as we know it" (by using the same legislative procedure to pass the final health care bill that the Republicans used to enact a $1 trillion tax cut when they were in charge). The way the GOPs have been throwing around terms like "unconstitutional," "abuse of power," "Armageddon," "tyranny," "last stand for freedom" in the face of the routine, democratic exercise of power by the legitimately elected representatives of the people is not a coincidence. This is exactly the same calculated effort that has whipped up the paranoid belief (now subscribed to by almost half of the Republican rank and file) that Obama was foreign born and thus is not legitimately the President at all.

Gingrich is simply wrong in claiming that everyone does this. Democrats, who tend to believe in the importance of government, accept that election defeats are part of democracy. Republicans increasingly do not—and react to being outvoted by pulling the temple down upon us all.