Lame-duck congressional session looks more like turkey

October 29, 2002|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- Election Day is approaching, and like kids on Christmas Eve, both parties are atwitter over what they might get. Democrats and Republicans are both hoping for control of the Senate, which the Democrats now dominate. Normally, one party is doomed to disappointment. But this year, both could get their wish.

How can that be? It's the result partly of some oddities of this particular election -- and partly of a grossly outdated constitutional provision that leaves a long delay between the time voters choose their representatives and the time those representatives take office. Here is how the train-wreck scenario unfolds:

Currently, the Democrats enjoy a mere one-vote margin in the Senate. Democrat Jean Carnahan of Missouri, who was appointed to the Senate seat won by her late husband two years ago, is running to serve the remaining four years of that term. Because this is a special election, whoever wins will be sworn in immediately rather than waiting until January, when the new Congress officially begins.

If Republican Jim Talent beats Ms. Carnahan, there will suddenly be a deadlock, giving Vice President Dick Cheney the deciding vote. Republicans figure they would be on top at least long enough to confirm several of President Bush's more controversial judicial nominees.

They might have to act quickly. That's because of another anomaly: GOP Sen. Frank Murkowski is running for governor of Alaska. If he wins, he will be required under state law to resign from the Senate before starting his new job Dec. 2. So the Democrats would regain their edge.

But again, not for long: Mr. Murkowski would appoint his successor no sooner than five days after becoming governor. Once he does that, in this scenario, the Republicans would be back in power.

Confused? Well, we're not done yet: The Democrats could regain a majority when the new Congress convenes in early January.

Even if none of these events comes to pass, Congress will still have to assemble after the election to consider various items that are still awaiting action, including the Department of Homeland Security, an overhaul of bankruptcy law and 11 major spending bills. The citizenry could vote to give Republicans control of the Senate and Democrats control of the House. But the fate of these pieces of legislation will be decided by a Democratic Senate and a Republican House.

This lame-duck period brings to mind the commercial in which the woman tells her companion over dinner, "I love you." He sits there acting as though he didn't hear, she gets up with a hurt look and leaves. Then, after she's gone, he finally replies, "I love you, too."

Why does Congress function with an unproductive two-month time delay? There used to be a good reason -- practicality. When the republic was founded, the president wasn't sworn in until March, which was a concession to bad roads and slow travel. In 1933, the Constitution was amended to mandate the installation of the president and Congress in January, reflecting the better transportation of the rail age.

By now, though, the two-month interval is as obsolete as a steam locomotive. We know almost all the results of the election within hours of the last poll closing. The winners could be in Washington the following day. Acquainting newcomers with their new responsibilities might take a bit longer, but there is no reason members of Congress should continue wielding power for weeks after their successors have been chosen.

A bank wouldn't let a customer write checks on an account that's been closed. If the state revokes your driver's license, it doesn't give you a grace period to adjust to the inconvenience. But in a lame-duck session like the one expected this year, lawmakers get to keep spending our money and butting into our lives even after they've been cashiered. Those who are serving their last days can make decisions free of any worry about what their constituents may want. You can throw a bum out one week, and he can be voting on matters of great national importance the next -- and the next, and the next, and the next. The Night of the Living Dead has nothing on these people.

In Britain, by contrast, a new Parliament is normally elected and installed in a week and a half. A departing British parliamentarian has to make haste leaving so the door doesn't hit him on his way out.

Taking our time about translating the results of an election into actual changes on Capitol Hill may be nice for lawmakers facing retirement or the private sector. But it's a raw deal for the voters.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.

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