Lame Duck Congress:
Attendance and Voting
Are defeated Members required to return to DC to vote in a lame-duck session? Do the new set of House leaders have any power in a lame duck session?
All current Members of Congress, whether defeated or not, retain their position and the obligations of representation until the new 112th Congress convenes on January 3, 2011. That is the day that all Members elected on November 2, 2010 take the oath of office and assume their seats.
Without an excused leave of absence all Members are expected to be present and vote when Congress is in session.
That doesn’t mean they will do so – usually the voters hold their elected officials accountable in the next election for a high rate of absenteeism. But, in the case of defeated Members, that accountability isn’t there. Nor is the Congress itself likely to enforce any sanctions against Members for absenteeism when they only have a few weeks left in office.
So, it comes down to the individual Members themselves as to whether or not they feel the obligation to attend the lame duck session that will be held, starting on November 15 and lasting, it is expected, well into December.
The new leaders for the 112th Congress will be chosen in their respective party caucuses, and those internal party elections are expected to take place a few days after the lame duck session convenes on November 15. However, those new leaders will not assume their leadership positions until they are sworn into office on opening day of the new Congress in January, 2011. Although these Members may have greater powers of persuasion given their leadership designation, they will have no greater formal authority in the lame duck session.
Besides the importance of fulfilling their representational duty and voting, another factor that may enter into a Member’s decision whether to miss or attend the lame duck session is any remaining loyalty to their party’s legislative agenda.
Several high profile bills will be under consideration. Among them will be the question of whether or not to extend the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2002, which expire at the end of 2010. This year’s Defense Authorization bill has yet to pass both chambers – and it contains the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning gays from open service in the U.S. military. Also likely are an extension of unemployment insurance benefits and a bill to freeze the cuts in reimbursement rates to doctors participating in Medicare.
Dozens of individual Democratic Senators and House Democratic leaders have also called for other bills to come up for a vote during the lame duck session, for example: Child Nutrition legislation (Speaker Pelosi), re-authorization of the Secondary and Elementary Education Act (Rep. George Miller), ratification of the new START Treaty (Senator John Kerry), barring the Environmental Protection Agency from using the regulatory route to control carbon gas emissions (Senator Jay Rockefeller), Chinese currency manipulation (Senator Chuck Schumer), Food Safety legislation (Senator Tom Harkin), granting legal status to children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants (Senator Dick Durbin), increasing cyber-security (Senator Joe Lieberman), and renewable energy standards (Senator Jeff Bingaman).
There are six weeks between the November 15 start date for the lame duck session and the end of the year (not counting the inevitable days off for Thanksgiving and Christmas). How much this lame duck session will accomplish will also be a factor of time and whether or not there are sufficient days to resolve the intense conflict among competing priorities that will inevitably emerge.
For more information, see Capitol Corner column on lame duck sessions.