Where Are We Now: Congress, the Elections, and the Lame Duck

The Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year passed quietly this year, as Congress recessed in mid-September so House and Senate members could return to their districts to campaign before the critical November elections. Members plan to return to Washington in mid-November for a “lame duck” session of Congress, during which there will be pressure to address a number of major 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.

Lame Duck

Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk

Here are some of the must-do pieces of business awaiting the lame-duck Congress:

Fiscal Cliff, Part 1: The Bush-era tax cuts – They are set to expire Dec. 31. Republicans tend to favor extending them for all income levels, while Democrats propose extending them for everyone but top earners – individuals making more than $200,000 or families making more than $250,000

Fiscal Cliff, Part 2: Sequestration The across-the-board spending cuts mandated by last year’s Budget Control Act are scheduled to take effect on Jan. 2, 2013. Overall, Democrats and Republicans alike want to avoid sequestration, but as yet they can’t agree on a plan to keep it from happening.

These could be addressed as part of a “grand deal” that tackles reducing the federal deficit. But it also appears unlikely that such a deal will be forged during the lame-duck session. Instead, expect Congress to “punt” the final decision on these issues – particularly sequestration – to later in the year after the new Congress convenes.

Other outstanding legislation:

The FY2013 Budget – Although fiscal year 2013 officially began on Oct. 1, there is no FY2013 budget. Instead, prior to recessing, Congress enacted a stop-gap spending bill – known as a Continuing Resolution (CR) – that keeps the government operating at current funding levels for the first six months of FY2013. This won’t be an issue for the lame-duck session, but it’s out there.

The Farm Bill – The Senate has passed its version of this legislation, which expired on Sept. 30. The House hasn’t acted yet. This is important legislation for farmers and live-stock owners who rely on federal commodity price support programs. The situation is more acute this year due to the drought that plagued the Midwest. Plus the farm bill contains funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – the federal food stamp program.

Then there are a whole range of other pieces of legislation that are high priorities for certain members of Congress: a bailout of the floundering U.S. Postal Service, the annual defense authorization, ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, and Medicare funding for physician payments to name a few – which will vie for attention when members return.

So the question is, will it be a lame duck, or a dead one?