A Lame Duck: Mascot of a Failed, Corrupt Congress

Obama has said that he intends to push the TPP free trade agreement in the lame-duck session of Congress. There is no better tactic for subverting democracy than the lame duck session. And the transnational corporate lobbyists are pushing hard for one. A few days wedged between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the average citizen is tired of politics and looking forward to some holiday cheer – and naive thoughts of a better world, is just what the Establishment needs to get its way!

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By William R. Hawkins |  September 12, 2016

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For the Federal government, 2017 starts on October 1 when its new fiscal year begins. When I worked on Capitol Hill, this always seemed to take members of Congress by surprise. They come back from taking August off for summer vacation and “suddenly” have to pass appropriations for the next year in a few weeks, after having ignored their primary task for months. When Congress left town for its break, not a single one of the 12 appropriations bills needed to fund the Federal government next year had been enacted. Only six had been voted on in the full House and only two in the Senate. Only the spending bills for national defense and veteran affairs had been acted on by both houses, but final passage has been stalled in the Senate. And then there is the risk of a presidential veto blocking enactment even if Congress did its job and sent bills to the White House.

Partisanship is part of the problem. Though the Republicans control both houses, the Democrats still have enough Senators to filibuster against bills or sustain a veto. Incompetence, however, is also evident, especially in the House where there is no filibuster and the GOP has a 246-189 majority; large enough to pass whatever it wanted. That the Republican House leadership has wanted so little is what has fueled the grassroots rebellion that manifested itself in this year’s presidential primaries.

The Appropriations Committee of the House has a subcommittee for each spending bill whose chairman is called a “Cardinal.” It is good to be a Cardinal, in control of purse-strings that lobbyists will devote a great amount of time and effort (and money, lots of money) to loosen for the benefit of clients. Thus, a third factor raises its ugly head: corruption. And its influence will reach dangerous levels if Republican leaders fail to pass adequate appropriations before the November elections, requiring Congress to come back for a “lame duck” session where not only spending bills but other controversial measures can be adopted without members having to worry about what voters will do in reaction; because voters will not be able to do anything for another two years.

There is no better tactic for subverting democracy than the lame duck session. And the transnational corporate lobbyists are pushing hard for one! A few days wedged between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the average citizen is tired of politics and looking forward to some holiday cheer – and naive thoughts of a better world, is just what the Establishment needs to get its way.

On August 12, President Barack Obama submitted a Statement of Administrative Action giving Congress a 30-day notification that he plans to present legislation implementing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact with 11 other nations running from Latin America to Asia. Obama had previously said that he intends to push the TPP in the lame-duck session of Congress. The statement is required under the “fast track” procedure Congress enacted in June which surrendered much of the legislative branch’s authority to regulate trade as laid out in the Constitution.

The “trade promotion authority” bill restricts debate and bans filibusters and amendments. As the name of the bill implies, it is about “promoting trade” regardless of direction and as an end in itself, rather than as part of any larger national economic strategy. This is exactly the way Big Business wants it; a policy that is focused on their desires and not on the needs of the country. The term for this is “free trade” – and what trade is free from is any larger context or parameters set by government in service to the public good. Fast track and a lame duck session will be the one-two punch that business groups see as the way to knock the American people out of policy-making in the global economy.

Speaker Paul Ryan is the key to whether there is a lame duck session and what will be considered during such an event. This is what gives the lobbyists their hope. Before he was Speaker, Ryan was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee which has jurisdiction over trade. He would not have held that position, or even been allowed to sit on the committee, had he not been a bought-and-paid for Free Trader. That is how assignments work in the GOP, whose leaders are fully in the pocket of the transnational Chamber of Commerce.

It should be remembered that last year (April 21, 2015) Ryan and Sen. Ted Cruz co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for passage of “fast track.” They claimed it would confirm the power of Congress to control trade, an Orwellian argument given that the bill actually gives up the legislative branch’s authority to write the bills it votes on; transferring that power to the president who will send a bill to “implement” the terms of an agreement that was negotiated in secret and will not itself be subject to Congressional approval. So much for Cruz’s posturing as a “constitutionalist” and Ryan’s position as leader of the house of Congress closest to the people.

The business lobby is, as always, basing its argument on TPP as a way to open foreign markets to American-made exports. But that is not how these agreements have worked in practice, which is why they are unpopular. They have promoted outsourcing of jobs to cheap labor pools overseas, with “trade” expansion being in the form of imports of goods back into the U.S. substituting for domestic production.

Since NAFTA, the trade balance with Mexico has shifted from a small surplus to a deficit of $60.7 billion last year. The creation of the World Trade Organization in 1995 was sold as a global liberalization of commerce that would allow American workers to access the outside world. The result has been an explosion of the trade deficit, from $158.8 billion (bad enough) to an alarming $745.7 billion last year.

And since China was granted “permanent most-favored-nation” trade status when Washington allowed Beijing to join the WTO in 2001, the trade deficit with the Communist regime has jumped from $83.1 billion to $365.7 billion. The history of trade agreements negotiated on the corporate model has been the shift of jobs and manufacturing capacity overseas, so firms can expand the margin between the prices they charge and wages they pay to maximize profits. Big Business is not trying to support national economic growth; something it cares nothing about because it no longer considers its firms to be “national” enterprises.

Consider the plans by the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America to send executives to a lobbying blitz in September on behalf of TPP. Note, these are sellers of shoes made overseas, not American manufacturers. “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment,” Matt Priest, the group’s president, told Politico in July. It is the importers and outsourcers who really want TPP; and they know the only way to get it is in a lame-duck session away from the influence of American voters. Under the pressure of an aroused public, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have come out against TPP (a change in position for Clinton); so it must be passed before either takes office. President Obama, looking at the tremendous financial rewards Bill Clinton received from the transnational business establishment after he left office, having pushed through both NAFTA and the WTO, wants TPP to be part of his legacy – and the foundation for a wealthy retirement.

One of the proudest moments I felt when working as a GOP staffer on Capitol Hill was while standing outside a House Republican caucus meeting. It was a scene that would spark a true revolution if broadcast to the public. The entire corridor was lined shoulder-to-shoulder with lobbyists trying to get the ear of the members of Congress walking into the conference room. But one Member displayed the courage that is supposed to go with his office. He told a lobbyist who had grabbed his arm, “I would like to help you, but the people back home would not like it.” It is that sense of duty that a “lame duck” session is designed to subvert. It cannot be allowed to do so this time.


William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.