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The case for abolishing the lame duck session

Defeated lawmakers with nothing left to lose shouldn't be able to set the capitol on fire on their way out the door.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 31: First lady Michelle Obama hands out treats to a child dressed as a 'lame duck' during a Halloween event at the South Lawn of the White House October 31, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 31: First lady Michelle Obama hands out treats to a child dressed as a 'lame duck' during a Halloween event at the South Lawn of the White House October 31, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Democrats romped through Michigan and Wisconsin last month, winning races for governor, attorney general, and secretary of state in both states. In response to these flagrant acts of democracy, the lame duck Republican governments now plan to pass a rush of new laws stripping these offices of power.

In Wisconsin, one proposal would prevent the incoming Democratic officials from withdrawing from a partisan lawsuit attacking the Affordable Care Act — or potentially from other lawsuits unless they get approval from a Republican-controlled committee. In 2018, Democrats won 54 percent of the popular vote in state assembly races, but only 36 percent of the seats, thanks to one of the nation’s most aggressive gerrymanders.

Another Wisconsin proposal would strip authority from agencies overseen by the governor. Still another would force incoming Gov. Tony Evers (D) to implement a work requirement for many Medicaid recipients.

Meanwhile, the Michigan proposals would transfer power to enforce the state’s campaign finance laws from the incoming secretary of state to a commission whose membership would be evenly divided between both parties — allowing the Republicans to block actions by deadlocking the commission. Another seeks to undercut a provision of the state constitution allowing state citizens to propose legislation.

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Under that provision, a citizen-initiated petition proposed a minimum wage hike and sick leave protections for workers. The Republican-controlled legislature appears to have enacted the proposal in order to prevent it from going to the voters in a referendum. Now that the election has passed, Republicans proposed rolling back this legislation during a lame duck session.

It’s an entirely predictable state of affairs — North Carolina Republicans passed similar legislation stripping that state’s governor’s office of power after Democrat Roy Cooper won his gubernatorial race in 2016. But it’s also an entirely avoidable subversion of democracy.

On May 7, 2017, Emmanuel Macron won France’s presidential election. He took office seven days later. Canada’s Liberal Party won a parliamentary majority on October 19, 2015. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office on November 4 of that year. The last time power switched partisan hands in Great Britain, former Prime Minister David Cameron took office just five days after the general election.

There are good reasons why a nation may need several days or even a few weeks between an election and the ascension of its new government. Counting all the ballots takes time. And, in parliamentary systems, it may take a while for the leader of the dominant party to pull together a large enough coalition to form a government.

But the United States has an unusually long lame duck period — about two months at the federal level, and a similar amount of time in most states. And it still has this lengthy interregnum for no good reason. In the horse and buggy days, when it might have taken weeks for a new member of Congress to travel to the capitol, there was a logic to keeping outgoing lawmakers in place if an emergency should arise. Even state lawmakers might have needed time to get their affairs in order — and to figure out who would manage their finances at home while they were largely out of contact at the state capitol.

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But now we live in an era of interstate highways, airplanes, and smart phones. Barring an emergency, there’s no reason why a new lawmaker cannot travel from their home to the capitol in mere hours.

Moreover, in 2010, the federal government took an important step to ease the transition from one presidency to another — and there’s no reason why similar legislation could not be enacted by the states. Under the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010, major party nominees for president receive office space and funding for a transition team while the election is still ongoing. Mitt Romney reportedly spent about $8.9 million planning for the contingency where he won the 2012 election. That would have allowed him to hit the ground running the week after the election, if he had prevailed.

And, in any event, if Justin Trudeau, David Cameron, or Emmanuel Macron could step into their new role so quickly, there’s no reason an American leader shouldn’t do so as well.