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Planning for a Lame-Duck Session of Congress

In a city full of uncertainty, one thing is known – Congress will have a lame-duck session after the election. How fruitful that will be for policy is, obviously, unknown. However, major legislative victories have happened post-election, and there are enough issues lingering out there (from tax to trade) that could have a real chance once the election is behind us. 

Lame-duck session is a unique moment in the policymaking process because it removes potentially the largest hurdle to policymaking – political risk. When the election is over two years away and the media is focused elsewhere, traditional areas of political risk (cost, bipartisanship, large legislative packages, controversial issues, etc.) carry little to no political risk. It is an opportunity for both sides of the aisle to work together without fear of a primary election, for example. It is also an opportunity to advance policies without worrying how it will be messaged on the campaign trail.    

Five factors generally guide how successful a lame-duck session is: (1) the outcome of the election, (2) the amount of work that remains on the agenda, (3) the mood of policymakers post-election, (4) how many “must pass” items remain on the table, and (5) the interests of whoever will be in the White House during the next session of Congress.

Here are suggestions on how to maximize the upcoming lame duck session of Congress:

Plan Early: While legislation during a lame-duck session generally comes together at the last minute, unknown or un-vetted issues have little or no potential for success.  Socializing policy priorities now is important and doing so with those who will be making core decisions post-election – chamber leadership and committee leadership.  


No Issue Too Small:  The potential for a lame duck session is that large legislative packages have more opportunity to move and they become vehicles for smaller provisions. This is not only an opportunity for major reauthorizations; do not forget about some of the smaller, more targeted solutions that need to get across the finish line.


Stay Bipartisan: Regardless of the issue, both sides of the political aisle will need to approve it. While this does not mean that both parties will champion it, issues that are complete non-starters for one party still have little or no chance in a lame-duck. Issues should at least be acceptable to both sides of the aisle.


Remember, There Are Two Chambers: Lame-duck negotiations include both the House and Senate and neither have the ability to force an issue (unless it's a priority of the leaders). Given the number of requests being made, if both sides of the Capitol are not fully aligned on an issue it will be much more likely to end up on the cutting room floor. 


Focus on the Issue, Not the Legislative Vehicle: Unless you are the Speaker or Senate Majority Leader, you have zero influence on what the legislative vehicle will be used during a lame-duck session of Congress…and it does not really matter anyway. Spend your time advocating for your policy priority regardless of what the legislative vehicle is - control what you can control.    


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