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Amidst Uncertainty, ‘Lame Duck’ Congress Returns to Unfinished Business


Both the House and Senate are scheduled to return this week for a lame-duck session, but the dust hasn’t settled yet on the elections and time is running short, including whether the SECURE Act 2.0 will cross the finish line.

Here’s where things stand and what is known so far.

In late September, Congress approved and President Biden signed a temporary, stopgap spending bill for the fiscal year 2023, which began Oct. 1, extending the federal government’s funding—through Dec. 16. Congress will need to act before that deadline to pass either another continuing resolution or an omnibus spending bill that funds the federal government for the remainder of FY 2023—or run the risk of a government shutdown and concerns about the nation’s debt obligations.

It is part of this “legislative vehicle” to which many (still) believe (and hope) a final SECURE Act 2.0 will be attached as part of that year-end process. This would be similar to what happened in 2019 with the original SECURE Act (the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act).

Last March, the House of Representatives approved the Securing a Strong Retirement Act of 2022 (H.R. 2954)—a.k.a. SECURE Act 2.0—by an overwhelming 414-5 margin. And in June, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee unanimously approved the Retirement Improvement and Savings Enhancement to Supplement Healthy Investments for the Nest Egg (RISE & SHINE) Act. Similarly, the Senate Finance Committee also in June unanimously approved the Enhancing American Retirement Now (EARN) Act. 

These three bills are all similar in that they seek to build off the 2019 SECURE Act to make it easier for employers to offer retirement plans and for individuals to save for retirement. There are some differences between the bills that the House and Senate have been working to resolve over the past few months in order to have a final bill ready before the 117th Congress adjourns. That said, with limited time remaining in the session and floor time at a premium, the year-end spending bill—whether it’s a temporary extension or a full funding bill—is considered the best shot for the SECURE Act 2.0 to be enacted.

If the retirement legislation is not acted on before Congress adjourns at the end of the year, then the process will start all over when the 118th Congress begins in January. With such broad, bipartisan support, it’s hard to imagine the SECURE Act 2.0 not being acted upon before adjournment—particularly given the upcoming retirements of House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Republican, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), and Senate Finance Committee Member, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who have been champions of retirement policy.

That said, anything could happen—particularly given the unknown status of control of Congress next year. Members may want to wrap as much up as possible before adjourning or they may want to punt key decisions until next year.  

Election Outcomes

In the meantime, as of this writing, it appears the Democrats will maintain control of the Senate, but it is still not known which party will control the House next Congress. The way things are leaning, it looks like the Republicans will take over the House. 

Control of the Senate will come down to the races in Arizona, Nevada and Georgia. If the Democrats win Arizona (as of Friday, this race was called for incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat) and Nevada (and on Saturday, it was announced that Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) is projected to win this race), then they will hang on to control.

The Dec. 6 runoff in Georgia will still be important, however, as it will determine whether the party has a 51-49 advantage or retains the 50-50 split with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote. Part of why this ratio is important is because it determines the makeup of the Senate committees, which are currently split evenly. As such, it makes it more difficult without bipartisan support to report (approve) legislation out of committee.   

Meanwhile, in the House, there are still roughly 20 uncalled races but slightly more than a handful that are considered toss-ups. The Democrats still could hang on to power, but they would have to run the table on the remaining toss-up races. The current split is 204 Democrats to 211 Republicans with 218 needed to take control. According to a report in Politico, the best-case scenario should the Republicans take control is that they would have only 226 seats, which is only an eight-seat margin. The Democrats entered this election with a four-seat majority, though a majority is all that is required to move legislation in that chamber.  

Still, if the GOP takes over the majority, they will have control over the House’s legislative agenda, setting the schedule and determining which bills come up for a vote, as well as chairing the committees. Either way, whichever party controls either the House or Senate, there will be very narrow margins and not a lot of room for the party in control to lose votes from its members—and that suggests that gridlock may reign, unless the parties are willing to work together on key issues.


NOTE: While the term “lame duck” is most typically these days a term used to refer to a period between sessions of Congress where little can be done legislatively, it actually has its roots in the stock market. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known reference to the phrase is from a letter written by British nobleman Horace Walpole in 1761. “Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck are?” he asked, referring to the London Stock Exchange, where lame duck described an ill-fated investor who defaulted on their loans. The Congressional Globe used lame duck to describe “broken down politicians” back in 1863, and it started to appear in newspaper articles referencing politics not long after.