So Far, A Productive Lame-Duck Session

In the face of an onerous legislative docket and partisan tones emanating from all corners of the political sphere, Congress has actually managed to resolve most of the large, immediate issues that came before it in the last few weeks of 2010.

This lame-duck session, it turns out, is what a functioning Congress looks like.

Although he signaled willingness to do so, Majority Leader Harry Reid probably won't have to keep senators in Washington on Christmas Eve or ask them to return begrudgingly for more work the following week, before the 111th Congress ends and the 112th begins on January 3. Most of Congress's lame-duck business, by now, is complete.

Since Thanksgiving, Congress has:

  • Extended the Bush tax cuts, preventing rates from increasing during the next two years.
  • Repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," as Democrats delivered on a promise to gay-rights. activists at the very last moment of opportunity, as GOP midterm gains would likely have made this impossible next year.
  • Extended unemployment benefits for another 13 months. With unemployment benefits expiring in December, extending benefits was a major priority for Democrats. The GOP agreed to the extension as part of President Obama's tax-cut deal.
  • Passed the FDA/Food-Safety bill, granting the FDA the authority to recall food suspected of being tainted and suspend food-producing plants if there's a sign of health risk, plus a handful of other new powers and funding authorizations.
  • Renewed the "Doc Fix," preventing a drop in payment rates for doctors who treat Medicare patients. (Congress does this regularly.)
  • Set Estate Tax rates for the next two years, preventing a rate hike. The Estate Tax had expired for one year in 2010 and was set to reappear in 2011 with rates much higher than those in 2009. As part of the Obama/GOP tax-cut deal, Congress instituted GOP-preferred Estate Tax levels for the next two years--a 35 percent maximum rate and a $5 million per-person/$10 million per-couple exemption.

That's not too bad, given the volume of hemming and hawing over how little time remained for legislative business, but a few big items remain on the docket and could go unresolved.

Still on the year-end to-do list:

  • The New START treaty with Russia. Democrats need 67 votes to ratify Obama's nuclear arms-reduction agreement, and some Republicans are resisting. The Senate is debating the treaty this week.
  • The omnibus spending bill. The federal government is currently being funded by a temporary continuing resolution, with a major spending bill held up in the Senate amid GOP objections. If senators don't come to an agreement this week, they could pass another temporary resolution extending current funding levels into the early months of next year.

Both of those issues could be left for the next Congress to deal with in January. Congress also voted down the DREAM Act immigration bill, which was a disappointment to Democrats, but also a note of resolution in the political debate. There is no DREAM Act cliffhanger; the bill has failed for now.

Just a few weeks ago, congressional inefficiency and partisan gridlock were a big post-election storyline. Whether or not Congress's inhabitants gleaned any productivity mandate from voters, it's amazing how a handful of year-end deadlines can inspire last-minute political will.

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