Fear of a Zombie Congress

Some congressional Republicans want to put an end to all lame-duck legislation—lest members yield to the urge “to feast upon the hard-earned tax dollars of the living.”

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Grab your shotgun and pull on those camo coveralls! Election Day is still six months off, but, as congressional conservatives see it, now is the time to launch an all-out assault on that most dangerous of legislative critters: the lame-duck Congress.

What’s so menacing about gimpy waterfowl? Critics charge that the postelection session held between when voters go to the polls and when outgoing lawmakers turn in their voting cards in January is the period when Congress moves the biggest, most contentious bills—which is a bad thing if you’ve spent most of the year trying to squash those bills. As such, lame ducks have become a fat target in conservatives’ ongoing quest to stop legislative movement altogether.

“We know nothing good is ever going to come from a lame duck,” Republican Representative Thomas Massie tells me. Departing members “are no longer accountable to the American people,” he says, which frees them up to make all kinds of mischief. Indeed, some conservatives have abandoned “lame duck” for the more fear-inspiring term “Zombie Congress.” Former Senator Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation, has been railing against zombie legislators for a couple of years now, explaining their threat this way: “With no electorate to appease, the newly politically ‘deceased’ members have no incentive to restrain their more base urges to feast upon the hard-earned tax dollars of the living.”

Now, the image of undead, unaccountable lawmakers shambling about, shoveling favors out the door at the expense of the public good is a wee bit unfair. A couple of years ago, researchers at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center crunched the data and found that, historically speaking, lame-duck sessions don’t differ much from regular ones in terms of what gets done. There is a slight loosening of party unity and maybe even a decrease in the inclination to preference special interests over the general welfare. The biggest difference is that members are more likely to skip votes altogether.

That said, conservatives have cause to be twitchy. In recent years, as legislative gridlock has become the norm, congressional leaders have used postelection sessions to move hotly disputed bills, especially on budget matters. “They always do the same thing,” laments Massie. Debate stalls, requiring passage of a continuing resolution, or CR, in September to keep the government running temporarily. “Then we will be presented an omnibus in December, literally a few days before we go on Christmas break,” says Massie. “And we have been told: ‘If you vote for this and it passes, you can go home. If you don’t vote for this and it doesn’t pass, you will be spending Christmas and New Year’s with Nancy Pelosi.’” That, he says, “is a potent motivator.”

Not this year, vow opponents. With the primary season still in high gear, forward-thinking conservatives—including Massie, Representative Mick Mulvaney, and much of the House Freedom Caucus—are talking up the evils of postelection sessions at town halls, in the media, and to colleagues. Their plan is to bring GOP leadership on board the anti-zombie train. Barring that, they want to make clear that they will make the lame-duck session a nightmare for everyone by blocking bills through whatever procedural means necessary. “But that is not the goal,” stresses Mulvaney.

Some members, including Mulvaney, don’t object to a zombie session per se, so long as “we don’t try to do anything major during it.” Others, such as Massie, don’t want Congress to reconvene at all after the election. “I think the American public would be safest if we did not come back for a lame-duck session,” he tells me.

Either way, conservatives insist this is not an attempt to run out the clock on this Congress with the assumption that the political landscape will be friendlier next year. Massie and Mulvaney readily acknowledge that Republicans could lose both the White House and control of the Senate this cycle. “And the majority in the House could shrink!” offers Massie. “That’s not the point. There is a principle involved here,” says Mulvaney. “What does it say to the public when we say, ‘We don’t have the nerve and the political will to take up big issues before the election, but we’ve got the will to do it right after the election when we’re not accountable?’” Massie agrees: “I’ll take my chances any day with whatever lot we get in January over the folks we have in November and December who have become untethered.”

Bottom line, however things shake out, House conservatives want to avoid a postelection session in which members might feel even marginally freer to let legislation move. And they are not alone. On the north side of the Capitol, Senator Ted Cruz has taken up the anti-zombie cause as well—though totally separate from his House brethren. (“I didn’t even know he was pursuing this,” says Mulvaney. “I thought he was running for president.) Outside groups are also mobilizing. On April 14, the Conservative Action Project issued an open letter to Republican leaders in both chambers, urging them not to hold a lame-duck session. Signed by close to 100 conservative activists and former officials, the letter asserted that any legislation passed postelection with the votes of defeated or retiring officials would be “undemocratic.” Citing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s position that a Supreme Court vacancy should not be filled by a “lame-duck president,” the group writes: “We respectfully suggest that the American people deserve that same opportunity with regard to confirming other federal judges, as well as to passing legislation and making international agreements.”

So to review: Congressional conservatives have no intention of letting legislation they dislike move during regular sessions. Senate majority leaders have decided that, during election years, none of their members should have to take politically risky votes on issues of any importance. And with something as critical as a Supreme Court nomination, Republicans now contend that the entire last year of a president’s term is simply too late for action of any sort, lest the people’s will not be respected.

On top of all this, conservatives are making clear that, above all, they object to the legislative logjam breaking immediately after voters have had their say—regardless of which team wins. Furthermore, recognizing that some of their colleagues might feel differently, they want to do away with, or at least neutralize, the entire postelection session in order to remove any risk of deals getting cut or bills being passed. “If we’re obstructing bad things, isn’t that a good thing?” Mulvaney asks.

It is, when you think about it, the inevitable expansion of the current governing—or rather nongoverning—philosophy of conservative obstructionism: If you cannot halt the wheels of legislation any other way, keep chipping away at the number of days when anyone is allowed to get stuff done.

At this rate, in a few years Congress will be able to abolish itself entirely.