Dec. 14, 2010
PUT LAME DUCKS OUT OF THEIR MISERY
Commentary: Modern politics doesn’t need the troublesome waiting period
By JOSHUA SPIVAK
Watching the sputtering end to the 111th Congress leads to some basic questions: Isn’t it long past time to kill the lame ducks? Why can’t we just have newly elected officials, both in Congress and the presidency, take office immediately after the election?
The lame-duck sessions — and especially lame-duck officials — are a historical vestige, born of a time when news and people traveled very slowly. Even back then, they weren’t useful or necessary. In moments of crisis, specifically after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, the last months of a lame-duck president’s tenure were a waste of precious time that prevented strong leaders from coming to power.
In 1933, Congress realized just how much of a waste of time this was and moved up the swearing-in date for Congress and the president from March to January. It is now time to move it all the way up to right after the election.
Lame ducks are simply a cause for trouble. People hope that the lame-duck sessions will allow parties to take necessary but unpopular actions that they otherwise avoided during the pre-election run-up. But why should elected officials be able to avoid responsibility for difficult decisions until a time when they won’t face the repercussions? Isn’t that exactly the point of an election, to make elected officials accountable for tough votes?
An even bigger issue is that these “necessary but unpopular actions” don’t really happen. Instead, the lame-duck Congress handles basic work that, for political expediency, was put off from earlier in the year, such as appropriations bills. Even worse, lame-duck presidents are willing to perform unpopular but also unnecessary actions during their lame-duck period, like granting dubious pardons and filling up appointments with soon-to-be out-of-work cronies.
One argument in favor of the lame-duck sessions, at least in regard to presidents and executives, is that it gives the new chief executive time to get a team together. Unlike in the U.K. and other parliamentary systems, the U.S. doesn’t have “shadow ministers” who are slated to automatically take over cabinet jobs after a switch in power. However, this shouldn’t be a problem; it should be an opportunity.
Presidents would be pushed into selecting and publicizing their cabinet choices during the race itself. This would give voters added information on the candidates’ actual policy beliefs and give a hint about which issues are critical to a new administration.
Thanks to modern travel, there’s little need to have lame-duck elected officials lingering in office. The transition could happen almost instantaneously — or at least once the results are finally all in (which in modern elections seems to take a month or so). It would allow the new possessors of the people’s will to get right to work and prevent rejected officials from sneaking in any unpleasant surprises or controversial appointments when no one is paying attention.
It would take some work — a constitutional amendment, to be exact — but it was a change that was made once before. There’s no reason that it can’t be done again.
It’s time to put the lame ducks out of their misery.
Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College.