End and Means: Curtailing Lame Duck Quacking is By No Means a Necessity

Mar 1, 2014

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Once upon a time, a veteran political reporter asked a simple question of his cub sidekick. “Young man,” intoned the legendary newsman, “What do you think of the Illinois legislature?” The rookie answered with all the insight gained during a couple of weeks on the Statehouse beat. “I can’t believe I have to live in a state where the laws are made by such a bunch of bozos!” he declared indignantly. “Young man,” responded his mentor, “no matter what you may think of them, never forget that every one of them is here because the folks back home voted for them over anyone else.”

The exchange embodied the genius of representative democracy, a system in which everyday people get to choose who will make the laws under which they’ll live, for better or for worse. A corollary, of course, is that whatever the flaws or failings of those elected, one should respect the collective decisions of those citizens motivated enough to go to the polls.

The lesson from long ago remains fresh today, leading one to have second thoughts about the latest scheme to thwart supposed legislative chicanery. Under a constitutional amendment proposed by House Minority Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs and his Republican caucus, so-called “lame duck” legislative sessions would be severely curtailed so that lawmakers turned out by voters couldn’t work any mischief before their successors take over.

Durkin’s plan would speed up by a month the swearing in of a new General Assembly and of the governor and lieutenant governor, so everyone would take office in early December, roughly a month after the general election. The legislature could not meet during that time without the joint agreement of the governor and the four legislative leaders for a session with a set agenda.

“You never know what shenanigans are going to be played in a lame duck session,” Durkin says. “In 2011 under the veil of night, Democrats in the lame duck legislature voted to impose the largest income tax increase on families and employers in the history of our state. Outgoing lawmakers, who are no longer accountable to the voters, should not be approving such controversial legislation.”

Other House Republicans painted post-election sessions as an insult to voters that exist only to pass hot-button measures with the votes of outgoing members no longer answerable to their constituents.

At first glance, the GOP initiative might seem appealing. But upon further review, as they say in the sports world, the plan may not be such a good idea for a number of reasons. From a practical standpoint, swearing in new legislators a month early is no big deal. Inaugurating a new governor in December is another matter, though, because the earlier date would cut in half the time a newly elected chief executive would have to put together a transition team, choose cabinet officers and staff, and get ready to assume the reins of a $70 billion organization with more than 60,000 employees and thousands of missions. Moreover, the plan would require some fancy footwork on that magic day in December, so that the governor could both take office and at the same time preside over the swearing in of the new Senate. Meanwhile, the December House festivities would be handled by the secretary of state, who just might be a lame duck; the other constitutional officers still would be inaugurated in January.

Presumably the logistics would get worked out, but a stickier wicket might be the need for everyone to get on board for the old legislature to meet after the election. Historically, the fall legislative session in even-numbered years has met after the election to allow candidates maximum time to campaign. That’s also when lawmakers consider the governor’s actions on bills passed in the spring. Would a governor agree to a post-election session so that lawmakers could override his or her vetoes? Or, would lawmakers want to stop campaigning to come to Springfield sometime after Labor Day for a veto session?

Consider, too, the philosophical implications. All House members are elected for two-year terms; senators serve one two-year and two four-year terms each decade. Should the effective length of those terms be cut short? Ah, but haven’t the voters themselves decided to terminate the November losers, and so, because they are no longer accountable, they shouldn’t have a hand in shaping public policy?

But if accountability — facing the voters — is the criterion for continued lawmaking, what about incumbents who opt not to seek another term, lame ducks by choice, if you will? Every election, there are more folks who decide to retire or seek another office than there are who’ve lost re-election bids. In fact, half a dozen of the proposed amendment’s Republican co-sponsors fit that description. Will they not participate this spring?

Moreover, are lame duck sessions so serious a problem that such a drastic overhaul is needed? The Republicans’ poster child, of course, is the 2011 income tax increase. And their sense of urgency no doubt reflects a combination of hope and fear — hope that whoever emerges from the Republican gubernatorial primary can defeat Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in November, and fear that if the GOP candidate wins, the legislature’s Democratic majorities might try to ram through a slew of partisan measures before Quinn leaves. Indeed, their trepidation could well be based on their memories of what Republicans did when faced with a similar situation after the 1996 election, in which Democrats regained control of the House, ending two years of GOP hegemony. In the final hours of their reign, Republicans in January 1997 pushed through a number of controversial measures over Democrats’ objections. Most notable were bills to eliminate straight party voting, which the GOP always assumed aided low-information Democratic voters, and to redraw judicial district boundaries to elect more Republicans to the courts. Neither bill would have come close to passing the House without the votes of GOP lame ducks.

Ironically, neither measure played out as Republicans had expected. With the aid of Republican voters who had to go down the ballot instead of punching straight GOP, Democrats elected their first House member from McHenry County since single member districts were created in 1982. And the Supreme Court tossed the judicial redistricting plan because its drafters neglected to adjust circuit boundaries to match the new districts.

Perhaps the most memorable lame duck moment of all came after the 1978 election, when lawmakers in less than seven hours voted themselves and other state officers 40 percent pay raises and then made them law over Gov. Jim Thompson’s veto, which was conveniently made by his autopen in plenty of time for an override while he vacationed in South Carolina. Ultimately, the raises were rolled back, but a young rabble-rouser named Pat Quinn used the ensuing public outrage to push through a constitutional amendment that cut the size of the House by one-third.

Overall, however, lame duck sessions have not produced that many fireworks. Since annual sessions became the norm under the 1970 Constitution, some 27,000 bills have become law. Only about 3 percent were products of lame duck sessions. But what about that 67 percent tax hike, the largest in state history, made possible only with the votes of lame-duck Democrats who, Republicans are quick to point out, were no longer accountable to the voters? In fact, most of the legislators voting for higher income tax rates were not lame ducks but sitting lawmakers who planned to run again — and be accountable to voters — in 2012. Fittingly, voters had the last word: None of the tax-hike “yes” votes lost that November. 

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. 

Illinois Issues, March 2014