Lame Duck Sessions Reveal What Members of Congress Really Want

Lame Duck Sessions Reveal What Members of Congress Really Want

By Matthew Mitchell & Emily Washington - October 12, 2014

What does your member of Congress really want? It can be hard to know because typical legislators are under extraordinary pressure to do what other people want. For one, she must cater to home-district special interests because the ability to organize can make or break a political career. She must also accommodate the wishes of donors, for it’s nearly impossible to win reelection without a sizeable war chest. Then there are congressional colleagues. Your member must indulge their often-parochial interests because she needs their support for her own priorities. And, finally, there are party leaders. Because they control the agenda, a sizeable portion of campaign funds, and all-important committee assignments, leadership’s interests must also be indulged.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know how your member of Congress really feels about the important issues, to have a political science version of the movie What Women Want? It turns out something like this exists. Simply watch what members do during a lame duck session of Congress. For legislators who are retiring or have been voted out of office, a lame duck session is a unique opportunity to ignore the wishes of special interests, campaign donors, other legislators and party bosses. Only as lame ducks can they freely vote as they wish.

To better understand the differences between lame duck and regular session voting patterns, we recently analyzed over 50,000 House and Senate roll call votes. Our analysis controls for the idiosyncratic voting patterns of different Congresses and the different patterns that emerge near the end of the year. Our most salient finding is that during a lame duck session, representatives are 50 percent more likely and senators 30 percent more likely to miss votes. Like everyone else, members of Congress don’t work as hard when they know no one is watching. We also find that lame duck legislators are slightly—about 3 to 4 percent—less likely to vote with their parties. Because they don’t face pressure to bow to party leadership to see their policy agendas advanced, lame duck members can vote as they see fit even if this means siding with the opposite party.

The lame duck environment may make some legislators more likely to vote in the general interest rather than for special interests, making it a window of time in which policy reform is sometimes possible. For example, the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs passed in a lame duck in 1994, advancing free trade. During the regular session that year, GATT had been blocked in the Senate. During the lame duck session, however, democratic Senators who were unwilling to vote for the bill during the regular session were under less pressure to support protectionist measures for domestic industries, allowing the bill to pass the Senate and become law.

While a lame duck session can be the ideal time to pass legislation that serves the general public instead of special interests, there is an important exception to this rule. Those lame duck members who will enter the private sector after leaving Congress may be particularly beholden to the interests of their next employer. For example, lame duck legislators overwhelmingly supported President Warren Harding’s controversial proposal to subsidize the construction of U.S. merchant ships. After they left office, Harding rewarded many of them with administrative appointments.

The incentives of public office are often perverse. And regular elections are rightly celebrated as one of the most important institutional constraints on bad behavior. It’s ironic, then, that some of the worst incentives of office—those that encourage legislators to indulge the wishes of parochial special interests—are attenuated only when members no longer face their voters. In this environment, we get to see legislators’ true colors. Some rise to the occasion and some sink.

Here’s hoping the members in the coming lame duck session rise to the opportunity.

Correction, October 13, 2014: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that a biofuel tax credit that will likely be up for a vote during the lame duck session would present an opportunity for lame duck members to act in the general interest rather than in favor of special interests. Actually, it's the Biodiesel Blending Credits that will be up for consideration.

Matthew Mitchell is a senior research fellow and the lead scholar on the Project for the Study of American Capitalism with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he is also an adjunct professor of economics. Emily Washington is a policy research manager for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. They are coauthors, with Christopher Koopman, of a new Mercatus on Policy paper that asks, “How Lame Are Lame Ducks?” 

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