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.”