What to watch for in the lame-duck session

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama

Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama are running neck and neck in the home stretch of the 2012 presidential election.

Americans will speak to their leaders Nov. 6 in the presidential and congressional elections. Their message will affect how the lame duck session of Congress addresses sequestration, the looming cuts to the government budgets coming Jan. 2, even the continuing resolution and the debt limit issues.

What happens on Capitol Hill after Nov. 6 depends on how the election is interpreted – or spun -- in the public eye, said Paul Carliner, managing partner of Carliner Strategies, speaking Oct. 22 at a TechAmerica event. The theme of the event was the possible effects of sequestration on non-defense agencies.

At this point, he said, no great wave of support is emerging for either side. But the election results will show elected officials just how the electorate feels, which will affect their choices in the lame-duck session between the election and the January inauguration of the president.

Carliner has some experience with Congress. He is a former appropriations clerk for Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). He and other speakers at the event offered some key things to look for after the election:

The tone of both parties’ messages. Did Americans tell leaders to reconcile their differences or will Republicans and Democrats continue to stand apart from each other in Congress?

David Taylor, managing partner at Capitol Solutions, said lawmakers, particularly in the House where “compromise was a bad word” when the current members were elected in 2010, have found that rejecting compromise has only led to roadblocks. 

In addition, Carliner said, neither side wants to be tagged as obstructionists and be blamed for problems. That also could drive the two sides together to a compromise.

When congressional leaders and the administration meet on sequestration. If President Barack Obama is reelected the meetings to handle the sequester will happen sooner than if Gov. Mitt Romney takes the White House, as he will first have to deal with transition matters, Carliner said. Romney will deal with the issues at some point, but “it will get very, very complicated as that clock ticks down to Jan. 2,” when sequestration is set to take effect, he said. Romney won’t even be sworn in until Jan. 20.

Who takes the lead in negotiations. House and Senate leaders can reach a compromise with the administration faster and quicker than if they bring along their whole caucus. But, Carliner said, they would risk getting too far ahead of their members and losing support to continue in leadership roles.

How they address sequestration. Congress is likely to split the sequestration into a short-term fix and a long-term fix, said Taylor, who worked as a Senate Appropriations Committee staff member and in President George H. W. Bush’s Office of Management and Budget. A Romney administration may take 90 days to implement its approach to handling sequestration, the debt ceiling limit, which requires action by February, and the end of the CR in March. Congress may delay sequestration’s effects, but it only complicates the other two unmovable deadlines, Taylor and Carliner said.

There are two wildcards too that will only further complicate a solution to sequestration, Carliner said. For one, there could be some ambiguity over the true winner of the election, such as happened in 2000. Another variable is how the financial markets react. Besides the situation in Europe, a perceived inability to address sequestration after the election could cause nervousness in the stock and bond markets.

Another factor plays into the whole situation, Carliner said. He said as of January 2013, almost 60 percent of members of Congress will have served six years or less. The length of service likely applies to staff members too, he said.

“You’re dealing with a group that does not have a long institutional memory on how these types of big things done,” he said. “So I think it will be messy, but it’s certainly doable.”

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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