Understanding the Lame Duck Politics Disadvantages

11/29 Update

The Biden administration has asked Congress to take up legislation that would prevent a rail strike. The House said they’d act on it tomorrow (11/30) and the Senate hopes to take it up at the end of the week or next week. Although there is significant support for the legislation, it is unclear if the needed 10 Republicans will go along, making this an excellent politics disadvantage for the weekend.

The same sex marriage bill has passed the Senate (it already passed the House).

Introduction

Today (11/28) the Senate returns from Thanksgiving break and the House returns tomorrow (11/29).

When Congress fully returns to session it will spend a month from then until the end of December in the “lame duck” session. The session is referred to as the “lame duck” because it is the period of time between the end of the midterm elections and the seating of the new Congress in January.

When the new Congress sits in January, the Republicans will have majority control of the House of Representatives but the Democrats will have at least 50 Senators, with the capacity for Kamala Harris as the President of the Senate to break the tie. If Raphael Warnock defeats Herschel Walker in the run-off election in Georgia, the Democrats will have an extra vote (51). If he loses, it will be a 50-50 split, with Kamala Harris breaking the time. The 50-50 split is how the Senate operated for the first two years of Biden’s presidency, though the House at the time was controlled by the Democrats.

Since control of the House will shift to the Republicans, the Democrats want to accomplish as much as possible.

Agenda Items

What will be on the agenda in the lame duck?

It’s difficult to predict exactly what will be addressed and what success the Democrats will have, but there are some priorities.

Marriage Equality Act. This Act protects same sex marriage. It is not a strong politics scenario, as the votes are already secured, with all 50 Democrats and 11 Republicans committed to voting for the bill. Regardless, it may be at the “top of the docket,” but with the votes already secure Biden won’t be spending any additional political capital to get it passed. It may be passed before your debates start this weekend.

Continuing Resolution (CR). Funding to sustain the operations of the US government expires on December 16th. To keep the government operating, Congress must approve a CR that at least keeps the government funded and operated for a limited amount of time (say 90 days) or until the end of the fiscal year (next September).

While it is incredibly unlikely that Congress will fail to pass a CR at all, resulting in a government shut-down, it may fund the government for a limited period of time rather than for the rest of the fiscal year.Negative teams my try to construct a disadvantage that argues that a short-term extension will undermine needed predictability in military spending and that a short-term extension will not include needed funding for more navy ships. A shell for this disadvantage, which focuses on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which is one of the 13 major appropriation bills that must be passed is included in the lame duck release.

Debt Ceiling.  This is also about finance but it is not about the CR.  The debt ceiling is the total cap on the amount of money the US government is permitted to borrow. It’s not an annual cap, but an absolute cap.

Since 1960, Congress has raised it 78 times. It can only be raised by Congress, not the President.

The last time it was raised was in December 2021 and it was raised to $31.4 trillion.

Some time next year (as early as June 2023 and as late as the fall of 2023), the US will hit the total debt ceiling and need to borrow more money to pay its obligations.

Although the debt ceiling was originally passed to prevent the US from “spending beyond its means,” the debt ceiling does not prevent Congress from passing budgets that require it to borrow and the US government can borrow until it hits that debt ceiling.

When the US hits the debt ceiling it really has no alternative to borrow or it will not be able to meet its obligations. The US is, for example, obligated to pay Social Security benefits, Medicare costs and make payments to defense contractors it has entered into contracts with. When Congress passes its budget it is not dumb enough to not know that it will need to borrow money to pay the bills, as the expenses in the budget are usually known to exceed revenues even when the budget is passed. If the US doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, it would simply default on its obligations.

If the US defaulted on its obligations it would hurt its credit rating, which would only increase its borrowing costs (lenders charge higher interest rates to individuals who are at-risk of not paying their bills).  There is also strong evidence that this would generally hurt the economy.

Although it is unlikely that the US would default on its debt, during the Obama administration the Republicans “pushed it to the brink” by threatening to not approve a debt ceiling increase unless Obama agreed to spending cuts.  With Republicans likely to take back control of the House, many fear this scenario could repeat.

Democrats have been pushing to extend the debt ceiling in the lame duck, and this became a somewhat popular disadvantage before Thanksgiving break, but the uniqueness is questionable at best.  This disadvantage is available for download and there are updated answers in the Lame Duck Release.

Ukraine aid. Some Republicans (the hard right) have come out in opposition to aid to the Ukraine. While it is unlikely there are enough Republicans to block its passage, Democrats would like to get a significant amount approved before Republicans take control of the House.

While Ukraine aid good/bad is likely to get debated as an all or nothing issue, and perhaps as an attached impact to the CR (no CR means no Ukraine aid), reality probably requires a more nuanced argument, with claims that if Biden’s package doesn’t pass we’ll end up with a Republican package that is less effective.

According to The Hill on November 27

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) on Sunday said Congress does not need to pass “Democrat bills” with big price tags to help Ukraine, saying the incoming Republican majority in the House will spend less money to fund Kyiv’s war against Russia.

Turner told ABC’s “This Week” co-anchor Martha Raddatz that he personally told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky he will have bipartisan support in the next Congress.

But Turner also said Republicans will closely look at how much is being spent.

“We don’t need to pass $40 billion, large Democrat bills … to send $8 billion dollars to Ukraine,” Turner said. “It’s been very frustrating, obviously, even to the Ukrainians, when they hear these large numbers in the United States as the result of the burgeoned Democrat bills.”

Turner on Sunday said Republicans will make sure that Ukraine “gets what they need,” including critical weapons like air defenses after Russia has pounded the country with a wave of missile strikes.

“We need to make certain we work with partners and pull together an air defense system … to defend Kyiv, to defend their infrastructure,” he said.

This disadvantage will be hard to construct, as this evidence even says Republicans will support them getting the key weapons systems, making this a strong answer to the disadvantage. If they CR doesn’t’ pass and the Ukraine gets nothing, that’s a more meaningful impact.

Perhaps once the debate develops in Congress more there may be evidence that the Republicans are trying to block funding for a specific type of aid that Ukraine needs, but the evidence isn’t close to there at the moment.

Biden has already asked Congress for the money, so this is probably an item that is at least close to the ‘top of the docket.

Permitting reform.  Permitting reform refers to deal that moderate Democrat Joe Manchin worked out with Senate Majority leader Chuck Shcumer to  permit more oil and gas production under the Inflation Reduction Act. Part of it includes the Moutain Valley Pipeline that runs through Manchin’s home state, West Virginia.

Although the GOP would clearly support the substance of the bill, the party is angry at Manchin for voting for the Inflation Reduction Act and would like to see him lose his seat (if he runs again) in 2024.  This makes passage of permitting reform unlikely, though there it is certainly possible. A couple teams did run Permitting Reform early in the fall.

Some want to attach it to the NDAA, so it is a potential impact to the NDAA.

Assault weapons ban.  In response to the recent mass shootings, President Biden has decided to push to an assault weapons ban (DebateUS! Backgrounder) in the lame duck. It’s unlikely he has the votes, however.if Biden does end-up pushing this and there is the potential for a vote early on, it does have a good chance to be a decent thumper

Child Tax Credit. As part of the American Rescue Plan, families under a certain income level were able to receive $300/month/child. The tax credit expired last January and there is talk of extending it in the lame duck session. It did dramatically reduce childhood poverty by more than 4%. The prospects for Congress taking it up and passing it at this point are unclear, but it is a potential scenario.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This is certainly a longshot, but there is a small chance Congress could take up protections for DACA beneficiaries in the lame duck [DebateUS! Backgrounder]

The child tax credit, the assault weapons ban and DACA are all long shots.

Theodore Mayer, 11-28, 22, Washington Post, Your guide to Congress’s lame duck session, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/11/28/your-guide-congress-lame-duck-session/

Other Democratic priorities: There are other bills Democrats would love to pass before they lose control of the House, such as potential deals to revive the expanded child tax credit and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to allow undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children to remain. Biden also said on Thanksgiving that he would try again to pass an assault weapons ban, although the House passed such a bill in July and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that it probably doesn’t have 60 votes in the Senate. All these efforts are long shots.

Thumpers

Protecting your link from “thumpers” can always be a challenge, but your odds are improved if you chose something that Congress will act on towards the top of its agenda, such as the CR or Ukraine aid.

If you do choose Ukraine aid, you’ll just need to win that the CR will pass without too much controversy relative to the plan.

One thing everyone will need to contend with is the potential for a rail strike that could disrupt the entire lame duck.

You could, of course, make a politics DA out of it if it makes it to the weekend. The House has pledged to act on it this week. The Senate may act this week or next week. If the Senate doesn’t get to it until next week, it could be a great politics DA for this coming weekend.