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Why wait to seat the new Congress?

Posted by admin | Posted in The Capitol | Posted on 12-11-2010

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I quoted it in this morning’s Wonkbook, but Bruce Ackerman’s op-ed calling for legislation to abolish the lame-duck session of Congress seems a little funny to me. It would make a lot more sense to just inaugurate members of Congress immediately following an election, rather than have a two-month period where nothing can happen or where a just-ousted Congress can pass legislation.

In 1932, when the 20th amendment shrunk the lame-duck period from five months to two, it was reasonable to allow time for vote counting. Today, with odd exceptions such as this year’s Senate race in Alaska, victors are generally known the next day. Allowing a week or two for logistical reasons makes sense, but there’s little reason for a larger break. Sure, recounts could drag into the next Congress, but that happens anyway. Al Franken took office in July 2009, long after the 2008 election.

This would be tougher to enact than Ackerman’s solution, as it would require a constitutional amendment. But two months is a long time for Congress to not be able to pass legislation, or for a Congress many view as illegitimate to be in power. What’s more, forcing an immediate transition would force candidates to think about things such as staffing and committee assignments during the campaign, which could result in more prepared and informed challengers.

Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

Ezra Klein

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