What the yuletide lame duck session portends for the coming new year

by Russell's Rants

Originally published December 29, 2010


My cynical side would say nothing. After all, the Lame Duck Congress still retained Democratic majorities in both houses. True, President Obama was able to reach a bipartisan accord with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on a tax plan, in which each gave the other his preferred tax cuts. And this first rippling of bipartisanship begat repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and ratification of the New START treaty with Russia. But how much momentum will such bipartisanship have in the New Year?

First, in terms of understanding what happened during the Lame Duck session of Congress, it is odd that McConnell would strike a bipartisan tax deal after having spent the prior two years denying the President the votes of Republicans on almost all legislation and having just made major gains in the Mid-Term Election. Maybe McConnell just couldn’t refuse a tax cut. Or maybe he thought he’d make it up in cutting spending later, as many of my Democratic friends fear. Or maybe Charles Krauthammer had it right when he opined that Obama got the better end of that particular deal ($133 billion in “Republican” cuts out of a total of $858 billion). Also consider that DADT and START are non-economic issues on which Republicans, especially those left-over in the Senate, felt more free to break ranks. Especially knowing that the incoming group of House Republicans would have a large and vocal Tea Party contingent, the Senate Republicans may have realized that this was their last chance to pass sensible military and national security legislation before the Jacobins arrived in town. In other words, the mid-terms had the perverse effect on some Senate Republicans (many of whom are retiring or from more moderate states) to get things done before the new Congress is sworn in!

Second, the new House Republican majority will likely prove obstructionist at every turn. The two big events coming in Spring are the budget and the debt ceiling resolutions. Tea Party types seem itching to shut down the government if they cannot extort huge spending cuts, which would be economic suicide given the fragile recovery. New House Republican also intend to investigate the White House to create a scandal and, of course, de-fund Health Care Reform and unwind any other social program they can find.

Third, luckily, Obama, the chess-player, was way ahead of us all. He and his team got many of his big initiatives passed in his first two years in office: health care reform, stimulus, financial reform, consumer protection and the aforementioned repeal of DADT. The Lame Duck tax cut deal was the stimulus bookend that he needed to the 2009 Recovery Act, which had achieved stimulus mostly through spending but was running out of steam. If stimulus 2.0 (the tax-cutting version) does what it’s designed to do, it will add 1.2% to the gross domestic product, reduce unemployment by over 1.2% and add over 1.6 million new jobs. In other words, Obama may not need anything more from the Republican House for the next two years to secure the recovery.

Finally, the President can propose some major initiatives that he hopes to campaign upon in 2012, full-well knowing that the Republican House will vote them down — thereby making them perfect campaign issues. A big one will likely be the proposals outlined by the Deficit Commission: long term reform of taxes and entitlements to put the budget and the economy back on sound footing (like they were headed during the Clinton years before George W. gave away the store). I’m also thinking of the DREAM Act which is both good policy and good politics for Democrats. And continuing his proposals for clean energy and education reform, the latter two are actually unfulfilled promises from his first campaign. But, hey, he had a recession and economic free-fall to save us from in his first term, so we can excuse him if he prioritized.

The Lame Duck session was a good way for Obama to end his first two years and seemingly regain his political momentum. When that momentum slams into the Tea Party soon in the New Year, we will know that the 2012 elections is afoot!