Congress had an impressive display of accomplishments in its lame-duck session this year. Lawmakers finally, after 17 years, dispensed with the odious and discriminatory "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy requiring gays in the military to keep their sexual orientations secret. It approved a deeply flawed measure to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, giving unaffordable tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans and continuing them also for middle-class Americans who drive the consumer economy. It extended unemployment benefits for those who are still jobless. It approved the New START treaty limiting missile deployments by both the United States and Russia. And it approved an historic change in food safety laws, putting the emphasis by the Food and Drug Administration on prevention of food-borne illnesses, instead of merely responding to outbreaks.
Many Republicans are unhappy with the post-election rush, arguing that the Democrats were wrongly trying to push legislation through after the country has voiced its desire for a newer, more conservative direction. This is an unfair criticism: first, lawmakers are still in office until the new ones are sworn in, and should not be denied the right to serve out their full terms simply because new people have been elected (and the same will be true if Republicans manage to lose the House majority in 2012). Secondly, the fall elections, while misread as a national, uniform demand for more conservative principles, were largely about anger and a deep distaste for how Congress operates. And the latter sentiment is valid as a criticism of the lame duck action--but not because Congress saved its work for the last minute, but because it has become so politically difficult to do anything of substance when an election is looming. And in our hyper-obsessed media culture, an election is always looming.
There’s a certain high school character to the Capitol that is probably unavoidable. They have bells and recesses. Gossip is rampant, as is a pecking order that favors the seniors. They have an unfortunate tendency to screw around for nine months out of the year, then work for three weeks straight--all night.
But the delay in getting some important work done this year had more to do with politics--the GOP unwilling to give President Obama and the Democrats a legislative victory ahead of elections, and the Democrats nervous about the impact of tough votes on their own re-election campaigns. True leadership means taking the tough votes as they come. Some lawmakers did that, casting controversial votes on sweeping legislation such as the Bush-requested bank bailouts, the healthcare reform bill, and climate change. Some of them lost their races. But at least they showed political courage.