Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A lame duck with wings

One of the benefits of the likely Obama Trifecta (tax cuts, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and probably the New START Treaty, after today’s almost certain ratification by the Senate) has less to do with policies and everything to do with job performance. The American people made their feelings known in the midterms; rightly or wrongly, their patience had run out on an institution that seemed to be managed and maintained by nominal members of Congress, self-serving fundraising functionaries who did just enough work to call “work.”

The vote in November made it clear: NATION TO CONGRESS: DO YOUR JOB.

For the last month or so, that’s exactly what the Congress of the United States has been doing, albeit with something of a gun to its head.

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The “lame duck session” of Congress is traditionally a holiday-connected period of lassitude; the customary post-election ritual is simple: current members make their reservations for flying back to their districts, defeated members clean out their desks, the incoming class gets offices assigned and, by bipartisan acclimation, nothing much gets done.

This edition of the lame duck was something else again. With the Obama administration making the broad strokes of objective, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi riding shotgun and exerting their authority (and the practical threat) to keep Congress in session until it formally ends on Jan. 3, the lame duck according to 2010 found wings it hadn’t used yet.

The result: three pieces of legislation that advance the American agenda in numerous spheres. By rolling up their Egyptian-cotton sleeves and marshaling the deliberative energies they were presumably elected to use, the 111th Congress, with bipartisan expression, set aside differences in its waning days and did the people’s business.

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“That’s the nature of compromise,” President Obama said at the White House last week, cribbing a little from Edmund Burke. “Sacrificing something that each of us cares about to move forward on what matters to all of us. Right now, that’s growing the economy and creating jobs.”

And the timing of those historic compromises this year points to how well a lame duck can fly when it tries. At least temporarily, the Obama administration, Pelosi and Reid have changed the notion of the lame-duck session of Congress, moved it from a period of relative indolence to a time of production, with lawmakers actually making laws until the factory whistle blows.

Slyly, the administration and the Democrats in Congress may have ratcheted up the public expectation of what Congress can achieve when it puts its mind to DOING ITS JOB, when its members forget their frequent-flyer miles and boarding passes and perform the work they’re elected to do.

Imagine that.

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Forced labor during lame duck sessions is nothing new, but Congress may not blithely get away with early departures again. We know too much. The American people just saw what’s possible from Congress. They might not say it at the Town Halls, but people think it just the same: Everybody in 2010 America is obligated to work to the end of their shift (assuming, of course, they’ve got a job to work at in the first place). What makes Congress so damn different?

It’s a matter of proving your ability to perform. Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist, hit on this need for job performance in a geopolitically practical context on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday. Breaking with conservatives opposed to the New START Treaty, Noonan said: “Sometimes you have to accept what is. It seems to me the United States these days is in a position where it actually has to go forward in the world and show it can make a serious treaty with another great power, agree to it, fashion it, get it through the Senate and sign it. Sometimes you have to prove your baseline competence in the world ...”

And you can’t really do that if you’re leaving work for Christmas vacation days early. You can’t do that when you’re crying about staying after school and being exhausted, like Sen. Lindsey Graham did, or jabbering about "disrespecting" Christmas, like Sen. Jon Kyl did by way of explaining why he couldn’t be rushed into ratifying the New START Treaty (despite the 18 congressional hearings held on the matter since Obama signed it in April).

The 112th Congress starts in January; like any freshman class anywhere, like any new worker at a job anywhere, they’ll jump in with both feet, eager to make their mark. But years from now, when they know their way around, the lame duck Congress will fly again. It’s hard to put a genie back in the bottle. And it’s hard to expect people to think a lame duck can unlearn to fly once it knows how, once it has to function, to fulfill its oath, has to work until quitting time, like everyone in the country it represents.

Image credits: House tax-cut vote, Senate DADT vote, Senate START Treaty cloture vote: C-SPAN.

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