'Lame-duck' midterm vacuum may define next two years

In the public affairs business, most of us are trying to anticipate what, where, and when the next great legislative fights are going to be.

In the public affairs business, most of us are trying to anticipate what, where, and when the next great legislative fights are going to be. We're constantly attempting to look around corners and see if some issue, controversy, or initiative will emerge to keep us billable and gainfully employed.

The upcoming November 2 midterms may be a bit more exciting than past election cycles from that standpoint. With a rebellious and recalcitrant Republican minority hoping to make great gains while a fractious and fragmented Democrat majority hopes to hold on to power, the elements exist for legislative fireworks during the so-called “lame duck” session.

The lame duck is traditionally that period between the November elections and the new Congress being sworn in the following January. It can be a time of great legislative mischief-making or a time for tying up loose legislative ends. It is also a time of swansongs made by departing lawmakers who lost their re-election bids.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) recently called the upcoming lame-duck period a “sour grapes” session. He and his GOP colleagues are fearful that if they win enough seats to solidly regain a majority in one or both houses of Congress, emboldened lame-duck Democrats who return to serve their final two-and-a-half months in office may try to force through as much as they can. That would include last-minute spending bills, tax increases, and a host of other liberal-leaning legislation, such as cap and trade, union card check, and a massive highway/infrastructure bill – legislation that couldn't get done during the previous two years for fear of backlash by an angry electorate. How ironic.

There is a growing conventional wisdom, however, that moderation and austerity may prevail in this lame-duck period and may just feature more workmanlike legislation, such as continuing resolutions that keep the government running and small fixes to larger, more complicated legislation, such as the Obama healthcare bill passed earlier this year.

In short, the lame duck may, in fact, be lame and tame. 

No one really knows if there will be last-minute legislative activism in November and December. If there is, we public affairs and communications practitioners will be plenty busy through the end of the year. That will also mean that the new session of Congress beginning in January 2011 – regardless of a change in majority party in either the House or Senate – will be action-packed and good for our business as well.

When we wake up bleary-eyed the day after the midterms, we may just find ourselves witnessing a watershed moment where the legislative agenda for the next two years will come into clearer focus. That will be good news for us in the public affairs business - whether it's good for the rest of the country remains to be seen.

Rob Tappan, a former senior official at the US Department of State, is president of The Tappan Group, a public affairs firm based in the Washington, DC area. His column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at: tappan@tappan.org

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