After the November elections, members of Congress returned to Capitol Hill for their “lame duck” session with one huge piece of unfinished business – the Fiscal Year 2011 budget. And while they failed to complete work on the budget – the government is currently running on a “continuing resolution” that funds federal agencies through March 4, 2011 – the lame duck session did pass legislation on a number of serious issues.
Incidentally, if you’re wondering about the phrase, “lame ducks” are those members of Congress who lost their election (or did not seek another term), but are still in office because their term has not yet officially ended. So a “lame duck session” of Congress is one that occurs after the election but before new members of Congress are sworn in in January.
Traditionally, the question about lame duck sessions is whether anyone will take their work seriously. I’m a former congressional staffer, and as one of my old bosses said after announcing he was retiring from Congress, “Why should anyone listen to me? I’m a dead body.” Yet such was not the case of the lame ducks of 2010. In fact, President Obama described it as "the most productive post-election period we've had in decades.”
Here’s a list of some of the things that members of the 111th Congress completed during their last weeks in Washington:
The most significant piece of legislation was the agreement between the Obama administration and the Republican leadership to extend the Bush era tax cuts. Congress opted to extend the tax cuts for all taxpayers by another two years. The package also extended unemployment benefits by thirteen months, and cut the Social Security payroll tax by 2 percent, from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent through 2011. It is estimated this legislation will add almost $1 trillion to the national debt over the next two years.
A lot happened in the area of national security. The Senate ratified the new START nuclear weapons reduction treaty by a vote of 71 to 26. Both the House and Senate voted to repeal the Pentagon's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," policy which barred gays from serving openly in the military. Congress also enacted the Fiscal Year 2011 Defense Authorization Act, which, at roughly $725 billion, including $158 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the highest Pentagon spending bill since World War II. Congress did not, however, pass the DREAM Act, which would have created a way to legalize young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States before the age of 16, lived here continuously for at least five years, and who either go to college or enlist in the U.S. military. The legislation passed in the House but was blocked in the Senate.
Congress also reauthorized the "America COMPETES Act" which is intended to maintain U.S. global economic and scientific leadership by supporting basic research, improving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and fostering innovation, especially in the area of new energy technologies.
Congress also approved the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010. This legislation forces federal agencies to prioritize programs and report quarterly on progress in reducing redundant programs and increasing efficiency as a way to save money.
Congress also adopted the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act – the first major overhaul of U.S. food safety laws since the 1930's. It gives the Food and Drug Administration new authority to recall tainted food. Under current law, the FDA can only recommend a recall and it is up to the food companies to voluntarily recall suspect foods. The Act also gives new protections to whistleblowers who report fraud-related food manufacturing problems.
And finally, Congress passed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which would provide $4.2 billion in compensation and long-term health-care benefits for first responders who became ill from working at Ground Zero in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Originally the bill would have provided $7.4 billion over 10 years, but this was scaled back to $6.2 billion, and then to $4.2 billion over concerns about the legislation's costs and how to pay for it. The legislation is named for James Zadroga, a police detective who died from respiratory disease it was believed he contracted at Ground Zero.
While enacted federal spending legislation is the main function of Congress, it is also important to remember the many other ways our elected officials, and our government, can have an impact – be it positive or negative – on all of our lives.