A Congress that remains in office between the election and formal installation of its successor is a peculiar American phenomenon. Known as “lame ducks,” because of the weakness that operating under an expiring mandate connotes, the Senate and House nevertheless retain lawmaking power between November and January. In fact, lame-duck Congresses can gain freedom of action if enough members on their way out feel they have less to lose politically — and potentially more to gain in the judgment of history — from taking tough votes. Past lame-duck Congresses have stretched their wings, passing such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the Privacy Act of 1974.
That is how the current 117th Congress should see itself when it returns to Washington. The country faces crucial unfinished business, which the next Congress seems less likely to handle, or handle appropriately. Though its composition remains unsettled because of still-undecided races, the probability is that Republicans will narrowly control the House; therefore, divided government is likely to be back for the last two years of President Biden’s term, with the GOP’s right fringe holding more leverage in a House where their party has only a sliver of a majority. By contrast, the current House and Senate still include outgoing moderate and pragmatic GOP lawmakers who might be willing to work with Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) appears to recognize the imperative, telling his colleagues in September that they “should be prepared for an extremely, underline extremely, busy agenda in the last two months of this Congress.” Here are the priorities he and other Democratic leaders should set.