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Abolish the Lame Duck Period

Yet another incredibly stupid American political tradition that should go.

Trump lame duck

Here are two recent items about the actions of Donald Trump, who is still the 100% totally in power president.

From NPR on Monday (emphasis mine):

Even as the Trump administration is heading out the door, President Trump is trying to exclude undocumented immigrants from the decennial census. If he succeeds, it will be the first time unauthorized immigrants will not be counted for purposes of drawing new congressional districts.

Three lower courts have ruled unanimously that the president’s action violates either the Constitution, the federal census statute, or both. On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in one of those cases — from New York.

From the New York Times on Saturday (emphasis mine):

Four years ago, President Trump took office with a pledge to build a towering wall on America’s border with Mexico — a symbol of his determination to halt immigration from countries to the south and build a barrier that would long outlast him.

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has said he hopes to halt construction of the border wall, but the outgoing administration is rushing to complete as much wall as possible in its last weeks in power, dynamiting through some of the border’s most forbidding terrain.

The breakneck pace at which construction is continuing all but assures that the wall, whatever Mr. Biden decides to do, is here to stay for the foreseeable future, establishing a contentious legacy for Mr. Trump in places that were crucial to his defeat.

These are just two terrible things that Trump is trying to accomplish before he skips town in January. My colleague Jack Crosbie also wrote last week about another terrible quest from this White House: the effort rush to execute as many people as possible before Joe Biden gets into power. But there is so much more. From a recent ProPublica article (emphasis mine):

Even as Trump and his allies officially refuse to concede the Nov. 3 election, the White House and federal agencies are hurrying to finish dozens of regulatory changes before Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20. The rules range from long-simmering administration priorities to last-minute scrambles and affect everything from creature comforts like showerheads and clothes washers to life-or-death issues like federal executions and international refugees. They impact everyone from the most powerful, such as oil drillers, drugmakers and tech startups, to the most vulnerable, such as families on food stamps, transgender people in homeless shelters, migrant workers and endangered species. 

The sight of an outgoing president straining every sinew to harm as many people as he can manage before the curtain falls is ghastly and ghoulish. The policies that Trump could ram through between now and January 20 could be very hard to unpick, if Joe Biden even wants to unpick them. And there is no reversing an execution.

But all of this highlights an underlying insanity about our political system, which is that we allow someone who lost an election to hang around for months on end with his authority completely intact and his ability to do damage as pronounced as ever, even though he was emphatically defeated at the polls.

The lame duck period, like the existence of the Senate or the power of the Supreme Court, is one of those things that seems like it was written in stone and must be perpetuated forever. But it does not actually have to be this way. We don’t have to have a situation in which the outgoing president is given months and months to wreak whatever havoc he can before the other guy comes in. It can be different! In lots of countries, such as the ones with parliamentary (aka good and wise) systems, when you get voted out, you’re gone the second it becomes clear who can viably succeed you. In the UK, the departing prime minister just gets into a car and heads off into the sunset. Then their successor arrives a little later, and that’s that. New government, bing bang boom.

It used to be worse in the U.S.—the lame duck period always stretched from November to March 4 until the 20th Amendment, which enshrined the now-fabled transition date of January 20 into the law, was passed in 1933. But it is still incredibly dumb, and in most instances, it leaves very dangerous people in charge for a very long period of time, even after they have been repudiated in the most intense way possible.

The obvious solution to this is….do away with the lame duck period! Or cut it down to, I don’t know, a week, in which all that the outgoing administration can do is get its affairs in order and hand over the keys. Clearly, you need time to count all the votes and certify the election. But you should not be able to do a full presidency during that period, and after that’s done, you should leave. (I would allow presidents to retain their power to hand down clemencies and pardons during this time, because clemencies and pardons are good, and we should encourage things based in mercy and forgiveness.)

Some might object on the grounds that staffing a new administration is a big job, and giving the new people a couple of months to prep is worth it, but, again, other countries seem to have figured this out pretty well. People win and then very very soon after they just release their whole list of appointments, and then they start the job. Sorry, you asked for the job of “most powerful person in the world,” so forgive me if I think you can just get on with it. Maybe, I dunno, you can think about who you’d want to be in your administration before you win an election? It doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Will this ever happen? Probably not, because this country’s political system is the absolute worst.