The Lame-Duck Controversy

Posted on Thu 11/11/2010 by

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By Tim Potts of Democracy Rising PA

Not content to lose their shirts on Election Day after two years of doing little, House Democratic leaders have decided to call it quits in a way that will make Democrats even less likely to gain the support of citizens in the future.

Before the election, House Democratic leaders had scheduled voting days during the “lame-duck” period between Election Day and the constitutional end of session at midnight on Nov. 30. However, the leaders canceled those voting days, turning them into non-voting session days. To their credit, rank-and-file House Democrats disagree with their leaders and want to work, but their leaders are MIA – literally. They didn’t even show up in the capitol.

More than a dozen bills have passed the House, passed the Senate with amendments, and now await a vote on whether the House will agree with the Senate amendments. Chief among them is a temporary fix to the state’s looming pension problem. Although the fix is controversial because it postpones the day of reckoning rather than tackling the problem head-on, it does mitigate the huge deficit facing next year’s budget, both in Harrisburg and among the state’s school districts. Superintendents fear pension crisis as vote is stalled, Scranton Times-Tribune, Nov. 10.

Here are articles about the legislation that will die of neglect unless House Democratic leaders relent and allow final votes on legislation that has already passed the Senate.

Dozens of state House Democrats assail leaders’ end of voting, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 9

Renegade PA House members seek a voting session, Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 9

Rank-and-file Dems angry but powerless to revive canceled voting session, Scranton Times-Tribune, Nov. 10

PA House leaders’ decision not to return to session this week riles midstate lawmakers, Harrisburg Patriot-News, Nov. 10

To be clear, DR continues to oppose lame-duck legislative session. The last lame-duck session, in its final hours, enacted unlimited free alcohol for patrons of gambling halls with no public hearings and no chance for those affected to support or oppose the idea.

The real solution is to get the work done earlier instead of taking months off during the summer and manufacturing an end-of-session crisis. Banning lame-duck session is what 82% of PA voters want, but that majority has not convinced lawmakers to amend the Constitution and prohibit lame-duck session as 39 other states do. Apparently, a Constitution convention will have to do that job.

Unlike the mischief that has given previous lame-duck sessions an ignominious reputation, the bills that await House action all have been thoroughly debated in public. Some have been in the works for years. Since the Senate will not reconvene, as they announced early this year, there is no opportunity for the House to add or subtract language, and therefore no opportunity to blindside citizens with secret deals.

Unfortunately, the impasse has caused some House members to trot out their lame arguments argue in favor of lame-duck voting sessions. Some argued that since they’re still getting paid, they should be voting on legislation.

However, lawmakers don’t complain about getting paid during the summer and winter months when they’re not voting. Also, there is work other than voting that lawmakers can do during the lame-duck period to earn their pay. They can have town hall meetings with their constituents, organize committees, hold hearings on legislation to be introduced in January, and perhaps even achieve some of the cost savings that the 28th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury proposed in May. For more about the reasons to abolish lame-duck session, click here.

Questions:

  • Will Republicans, who soon will control the House, Senate and governor’s office, finally end lame-duck session once and for all by proposing an amendment to our Constitution?
  • Will they authorize a referendum in November 2011 to let the people decide whether to have a Constitution convention, as three-fourths of voters want, and address the entire range of constitutional issues?

Is this pay-back time?
In 2002, Republicans controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and its harsh effect on the economy, the state faced a deficit of $1.2 billion. To plug the gap, the 2002-03 budget spent down the Rainy Day Fund, taking it from $1.1 Billion to $200 million. Combined with a variety of one-time revenue fixes, the budget left little room for the new governor to deal with continuing economic problems, making it likely that the following year’s budget would require tax increases.

Anticipating that the new governor would be Ed Rendell, Democrats criticized Republicans for digging a deeper hole for the new chief executive, who did in fact call for tax increases to balance his first budget. Now, in addition to other problems arising from the House Democratic leaders’ refusal to pass or reject the pension legislation in particular, it also makes it much harder for Governor-elect Tom Corbett to deal with next year’s deficit.

No one has claimed that this is the purpose behind the Democratic leaders’ cancellation of session days. But tit-for-tat politics is what passes for maturity in the capitol, and it can’t be discounted as a motive for their failure to act.

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