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posted: 1/3/2013 8:57 AM

The anatomy of a distinction on lame-duck votes

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In a literal sense, lame ducks ought to be easy targets. By definition -- assuming one is willing to tolerate the insensitive term lame duck over the more compassionate and compellingly alliterative disadvantaged duck -- their infirmities would seem to present problems for them keeping up with the healthy members of the flock. But in politics, the lame duck -- a legislator or congressman serving his or her final session due either to retirement or a failed election campaign -- can wield inordinate power. Since such lawmakers do not have to stand for election again, their legislative votes will not have consequences for their political futures, so they are free to act on controversial legislation they might otherwise eschew. Sometimes, this can mean the freedom to vote their conscience; sometimes, it can mean the opportunity to sell their vote for the promise of a new job.

And so, they can become the difference-makers for, say, the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States or Senate Bill 2505 of 2011 increasing income taxes 67 percent in Illinois.

For good or ill, this windfall of influence plays havoc with a fundamental premise of representative democracy. For that reason, Daily Herald editorials have tended to disdain legislation that surfaces in a so-called lame-duck session between the end of an election and the time a new Congress or legislature is seated. And in the current state of the Illinois General Assembly, this disdain has produced some difficult reflection for our editorial board.

In particular, we've urged lawmakers to delay lame-duck action on two topics we support -- gay marriage and driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. But at the same time, we've pressed for urgent action, even in lame-duck session if possible, on a measure we think will put the state's teacher-pension system back in order. That seeming contradiction was not lost on our editorial board as we discussed the positions we should take.

The difference? For many of us, and certainly for myself, it's a matter of practicality. I see little difference in votes on immigrant licenses or gay marriage at the start of the new legislature next week -- the first of which, of course, has already passed the Senate anyway and the latter which may well pass both houses this week regardless of what the Daily Herald urges -- from lame-duck votes on those matters. Time is not a critical factor and, interestingly, the lame-duck influence seems almost irrelevant considering that Democrats, the party most inclined to favor these issues, will have an even greater majority in both houses after Jan. 9.

But for pensions, time is a factor. With nearly three dozen new lawmakers set to join the General Assembly next week, delaying action would result in a lengthy period of training and education about a bill that existing lawmakers have already had several weeks to study. Given the nature of the Illinois legislature, that most likely means action wouldn't be taken until the end of session in May -- five more months while the interest on the unfunded pension debt mounts at the rate of tens of millions of dollars a month and five more months for bonding houses to further scorn the state's inaction and again reduce our credit rating.

Of course, the whole thing raises the legitimate question of whether we should allow lame-duck sessions at all. But as long as we have one, Illinois' current lame ducks actually do have a legitimate advantage. Our editorial board doesn't want to wait one day longer than necessary to make it easier for immigrants to get driver's licenses or, especially, for gays to marry, but in the case of pension reform, "want" is not the issue. We can't wait any longer, and, for us, that is an overriding distinction.

• Jim Slusher,, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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