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Lame-Duck Congress Reconvenes as Rangel Leaves Own Trial

November 15, 2010 at 6:16 PM EST
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On Monday, Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel walked out of his own ethics trial, the 111th Congress reconvened and newly elected members attended orientation. Kwame Holman has an overview then Ray Suarez gets more on what to expect from the lame-duck session with Richard Norton Smith and Norm Ornstein.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next: a look at the Congress’ full plate as the lame-duck session begins. NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman starts us off.

KWAME HOLMAN: Two weeks after the midterm elections, energized Republicans and disappointed Democrats return to the Capitol today for a lame-duck session of Congress.

For Democrats, the day was made all the more somber by the start of a public ethics trial for Charles Rangel, the veteran New York congressman. But Rangel asked for a delay so he could establish a legal defense fund. He said his previous attorney quit when Rangel could not pay him.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D-NY): Fifty years of public service is on the line. I truly believe that I’m not being treated fairly and that history will dictate that, notwithstanding the political calendar, I am entitled to a lawyer during this proceeding.

KWAME HOLMAN: Rangel then excused himself from the proceedings. But, after a 40-minute closed session, committee chair Zoe Lofgren announced the trial would go on with or without the defendant.

REP. ZOE LOFGREN (D-Calif.): We are prepared to proceed today. We recognize that Mr. Rangel has indicated that he doesn’t intend to participate. And it is his right not to participate in this matter. As mentioned earlier, no conclusions as to the facts of this matter can be drawn by the fact that Mr. Rangel has decided not to participate in this hearing.

KWAME HOLMAN: Rangel has served 20 terms and faces 13 charges of ethical wrongdoing. Among other things, he’s accused of using congressional letterhead to solicit funds for a public service center named after him at the City College of New York, and failing to report more than $600,000 on financial disclosure forms.

Other charges involve mishandling taxes on rental income from a villa in the Dominican Republic and misusing four rent-controlled apartments in New York City, including one as a campaign office.

The congressman has insisted he never intended to break any rules. And chief House Ethics counsel Blake Chisam appeared to agree today.

BLAKE CHISAM, chief counsel, House of Representatives Committee on Standards of Official Conduct: Do I believe, based on this record, that Congressman Rangel took steps to enrich himself based on his position in Congress? I do not. I believe that the congressman, quite frankly, was overzealous in many of the things that he did and at least sloppy in his financial — his personal finances.

KWAME HOLMAN: With no contested facts, the panel of four Democrats and four Republicans called no witnesses and quickly began deliberating whether Rangel broke any House rules.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, more than 100 incoming House and Senate freshmen, mostly Republicans, had their first day of orientation, including sessions on standards of official conduct and how to set up a congressional office.

In the Senate, 12 of the 13 Republican freshmen had a meeting with their leader, Mitch McConnell.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Minority Leader: This is going to be a huge improvement in the United States Senate, from our point of view. And I believe the American people sure have chosen outstanding members to join the United States Senate.

KWAME HOLMAN: In a nod to Tea Party power, McConnell today also endorsed a moratorium on earmarks, or spending directed by individual members.

Two new Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Chris Coons of Delaware, were sworn in early. Manchin will finish the late Robert Byrd’s term. Coons fills what had been Vice President Biden’s seat for the next four years.

On the House side, 84 of the 93 newcomers attending orientation today were Republicans. They will take their seats in January. For now, the lame-duck session confronts a range of issues, including an extension of the Bush era tax cuts that expire at the end of the year, a one-time payment of $250 to Social Security beneficiaries, who received no cost of living adjustment this year, another extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, and repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell, the policy that bars gays from serving openly in the military.

And President Obama is urging the lame-duck Senate to ratify the START treaty with Russia to reduce nuclear arsenals.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on what we can expect from this lame-duck and what’s been achieved in sessions past, we are joined by veteran Congress-watcher Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, and Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University.

And, Richard, I’m wondering if this has even been a long-time feature of our politics, or only really a function of being able to get back to Washington from a continent away.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, scholar in residence, George Mason University: Well, it’s a good question.

Actually, for most of our history, Congresses were as lame as otherwise. Until the 20th amendment was adopted in the 1930s, you would elect a Congress in November of an even year. They wouldn’t even sit, they wouldn’t come together until 13 months later, December of the odd year, which meant half of every Congress in effect functioned in a lame-duck capacity.

There is no doubt that lame-duck sessions are taking place more frequently. We can talk about to what — to what effect. I think there have been, by my count, 18 since 1940. And half of those have come since 1994.

RAY SUAREZ: Oh, so that tells you something right there. Has the modern lame-duck session been a place where you can get things done, Norm?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute: In many cases, yes. And what’s particularly interesting, Ray, is that, sometimes, the productive lame-ducks, at least in terms of the volume and importance of things done, has come after wave elections, 1974, 1982, 1994, when you would least expect it, when you would think that, with the dramatic turnover that’s going to occur when the new Congress comes in, in this case now in January, after the election, that there would be some resistance to the old one doing things.

But, in fact, many things of significance were done in those particular Congresses. A lot of others, it’s either one thing that they have to do or it’s just pro forma. But the fact that we have had virtually one out of every two post-election periods since the Second World War tells you that it’s now a commonplace phenomenon.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And, often, it has to do with the breakdown of the budget process.

I mean, it’s — as Norm says, there have been a number of issues. Bill Clinton’s impeachment took place in a lame-duck session of the House. Joseph McCarthy was censured during a lame-duck session of the Senate. Nelson Rockefeller was confirmed as vice president. And there have been some important legislation passed.

But, increasingly over the last decade or so, it seems to me over and over again the theme is, we haven’t got a budget. We haven’t gone through the regular appropriations process, Congresses of both parties, presidents of both parties, and it seems to be a recurring theme.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Norm, has the laundry list broken down really into two columns, the things that we have got to do and the things that we want to do?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes. And, this time, we have a really, really long laundry list, because there’s a pent-up demand, a lot of things that didn’t make it through the Congress.

And, keep in mind, one other part of the reason here — Richard is right — it’s the budget, but it’s also that it’s getting so much harder to get things through. And if you don’t get it done by the end of the year, it’s like a two-year marathon. You get to the two-inch line before you cross the tape. And if you don’t pass it, you have got to go all the way back to the start again.

So, in this case, they have all the appropriations bills to do. Not one for the fiscal year that began October 1 has been done. And that expires on December 3, or much of government comes to a halt. We have got the Bush tax cuts, which expire on January 1. The new Congress doesn’t come in until January 3 — massive tax increases if those aren’t done.

We have the START treaty, which doesn’t necessarily have to be done in the lame-duck, but where there’s some increased pressure because of the changes that are going to take place. We have unemployment compensation running out. And we have Medicare facing an enormous upheaval, with the doc fix as we call it. The reimbursement for doctors isn’t changed, it will go down 20 percent, and a lot of doctors will refuse to take Medicare patients.

Then you have got a long list of things that are on the wish list which they’d like to do it, from food safety, to the DISCLOSE Act to correct for the campaign finance reform problems that may or may not get done, with the rush of things that need to get done.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And there’s certainly a significant portion, particularly of the president’s constituency, who wants to see don’t ask, don’t tell repealed in this lame-duck session.

RAY SUAREZ: Since you mentioned the president, has this been a time where there have been rebuffs to presidents and victories for them?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Oh, sure, sure. Ronald Reagan — there’s some parallel. Reagan coming out of ’82 was at the low point in terms of popularity, in terms of polls. He had an economy that wasn’t responding, or — as thought. The Republicans ran on a stay-the-course slogan and had suffered modest losses. But there were a lot of people at that point who saw Reagan as a one-term president.

And he actually — he tried to get immigration reform through the lame-duck session, which was a very big, as we all know, evergreen source of controversy. He not only failed on that. The MX missile was rejected in a historic vote by Congress. Presidents don’t — in the Cold War era, don’t lose major weapons systems.

So, it’s — now, it obviously didn’t prevent Ronald Reagan from going on to win overwhelmingly and establish his mastery in time. But it does go to show that a president — Richard Nixon tried to get his family assistance plan through a lame-duck session of Congress, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s version of welfare reform. It was unsuccessful.

RAY SUAREZ: Though the cast of characters obviously is changing on Capitol Hill, the Congress is already changing. There are going to be three new senators who were elected in special elections coming in the next couple of weeks…

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: … some incumbents who won’t be coming back to Capitol Hill, except perhaps to clean out their offices. Is there a sense in which the 112th Congress is already beginning?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, the new members — and, remember, we have got over 80 Republican freshmen in the House coming in. We have got this wave of new Republican senators, and a few Democrats along the way, too, who are here this week. They came in on Sunday. They’re doing their orientations.

They’re going to be bumping into the departing members, who are still here for several weeks doing votes. So, it’s an odd sensation to have these two groups. It’s almost like you’re moving out of your house, but the people who are moving in are already there and moving their furniture before you have taken your belongings out. It’s a strange process.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And they don’t like your decor, and they’re probably going to repaint the exterior and bring in a new landscaper.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: What they hope to do is to bulldoze the house and put one up with a new set of architects.

But it makes it — it makes for some real difficulty. And keep in mind as well that, while the president has a wish list, the congressional leaders have a wish list, the nature of the modern Congress, and especially the modern Senate, is such that, with a limited amount of time here, any one senator can stand up and block things.

Richard mentioned the don’t ask, don’t tell provision that’s part of what should be a must-pass, which is the defense authorization bill. And Senator McCain, among others, has said, you don’t put don’t ask, don’t tell in, we won’t have a defense authorization bill with two wars going on.

You have got some leverage here that might be used in ways that make it even more painful and difficult to make it through this next few weeks.

RAY SUAREZ: And it sounds like, Richard, a perfect recipe for stasis.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: More of the same.

(LAUGHTER)

RAY SUAREZ: Well, given the fact that you have got some real contentious parties here.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, the lame-duck session sounds an awful lot a lot like the non-lame-duck session. In the olden days, absenteeism was a problem. There is no truant officer on Capitol Hill. And there — earlier, there were times when they couldn’t get a majority, a quorum, which might be the best thing sometimes.

But you stop and think you have these crosscurrents. You have lots of people — in a repudiation election, like we have just been through, you have lots of folks who are feeling bruised. I mean, what incentive do they have, quite frankly, to put aside their differences and be reasonable?

You have a lot of people coming in who are crowing over their victory, who believe that they represent true legitimacy. What incentive do they have to reach out their hand to those whom they have defeated? It’s not a formula for getting things done.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Norton Smith, Norm Ornstein, gentlemen, thank you both.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Thank you, Ray.