Capital Closeup: Proposals in Illinois, Michigan aim to kill the ‘lame duck’ session
Love them or hate them, lame-duck sessions are indisputably a time on the legislative calendar when big things often get done.
In early 2011, for example, during the final days of Illinois’ 96th General Assembly, legislators passed an income-tax increase, legalized same-sex marriage and abolished the death penalty.
More recently, in late 2014, the Michigan Legislature approved a $1.2 billion plan to raise more money for the state’s roads. (Voters ultimately rejected this legislatively referred constitutional amendment.)
The term “lame duck,” used for decades in American politics, refers to an official leaving office due to retirement or an election loss.
For some states in the Midwest, lame-duck sessions don’t occur because of the typical calendar for a part-time legislature: Lawmakers adjourn well ahead of Election Day.
But at the federal level, and in states such as Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, “lame duck” sessions occur regularly — after fall elections but before a new legislature convenes.
Some legislators in Michigan and Illinois say it is time to kill the lame duck in their states.
“If a bill wasn’t good enough to pass before the election, it’s probably not good enough after it,” says Michigan Rep. Joel Johnson. His proposal would require the Legislature to adjourn on the Friday before Election Day in even-numbered years.
In Illinois, both political parties (while in the majority) have taken advantage of lame-duck sessions, Rep. Jim Durkin says, at the expense of public trust in the legislature.
“You have situations where legislators’ district phones have been turned off because they’re leaving office, but they’re still voting on important policy issues,” says Durkin, current minority leader in the Illinois House. “That’s not representative government.”
He adds that the lame-duck session can lead to vote trading among members — outgoing legislators agreeing to support or oppose a bill in exchange for help in their post-legislative career (the promise of a new job, for example).
Under his proposal, the outgoing Illinois General Assembly could not convene or act on legislation unless the governor and all four legislative leaders agree to hold a special session. In addition, the governor would be inaugurated and the new General Assembly would convene much sooner after Election Day.
A look at lame-duck sessions in U.S. Congress
Considerable research has been done on lame-duck sessions in the U.S. Congress, including two studies released in the latter half of 2014.
As part of their study, researchers at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center list some of the big congressional actions taken during lame-duck sessions: impeaching a president
(1998), creating the Department of Homeland Security (2002) and reaching a deal to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” (2012).
A December analysis by the Pew Research Center focused on productivity as well. How much gets done during lame-duck sessions compared to other times of the year? For the last Congress, 87 bills were passed during the lame-duck period; that is nearly one-third of all the bills passed during the entire two-year term.
Timing partially explains this rise in activity. Lame-duck sessions occur at the end of the year, when there is a rush to complete unfinished business.
But the Mercatus Center study also notes how voting patterns change during lame-duck sessions. Members are slightly less likely to side with their own parties and less likely “to indulge most special interests.” Lame-duck legislators are also more likely to “ignore the ideological wishes of their constituents,” some research has shown.
In Michigan, Johnson says, the loss of accountability to voters is due in part to legislators knowing they will soon leave office. But he cites another factor as well: a rushed lawmaking process.
“You end up with 200 or 300 bills to do in a two- or three-week period,” he says. “In that kind of time frame, it’s hard for the Legislature to be informed, let alone the public. Bills just don’t get the normal vetting.”
Capital Closeup is a regular series of articles produced by CSG Midwest that highlights institutional issues in state governments.