Question: What is a “Lame Duck” Congress, now being talked about? Greenbelt, Maryland
Answer: “Lame Duck” is used to describe any public office-holder who will not be returning when his/her current term ends. They may not be returning because they are not seeking re-election, or they were defeated in an intervening election, or their office is term-limited, as in the case of the President.
All of these outgoing officials continue to exercise the full authority of their office, but their influence is considered crippled, or “lamed,” by the fact that they will soon be relinquishing the reins of power.
Lame duck Members of Congress are no longer accountable to their constituents but can still cast votes as long as the Congress they serve in is still in session.
The expression is also applied to a Congress which reconvenes after an election has been held and before the new Congress is established. A lame duck Congress conducts business with some Members who are still part of it, but who will not be part of the new Congress.
A Lame Duck 111th Congress meeting after the election could conduct business with the current majority of Democrats in the House and in the Senate, regardless of any losses to their numbers that the electorate may have dealt them in the November 2010 election.
The origins of the expression stem from the business world. In England in the late 1700′s, it was used on the London stock exchange to describe brokers who could not pay off their debts. By the early 1800′s, it was applied to businessmen still conducting business, but known to be going bankrupt. By 1830, the term began appearing in America, and transitioned into the political context we understand today.
The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, known as the “Lame-Duck Amendment,” was ratified in 1933. The 20th Amendment shortened the period of time lame duck Members of Congress could stay in office after an election had been held, from 13 months to 2 months.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, scandals involving lame duck Members of Congress and accusations of bribery in exchange for votes or favors became commonplace. Knowing they would not be facing the electorate again, lame ducks could vote with an eye more on their own personal gain and interests than on the needs of their constituents.
So reformers sought and achieved adoption of the 20th Amendment, which moved the date on which a new Congress regularly convened from the first Monday in December—thirteen months removed from the previous November election—to January 3, just two months after the election. To make the starting date of a new Congress and a new member’s term coincide, the Amendment also changed the beginning of a member’s term from March 4 to January 3.
In the early years of our nation, the longer interval between the date of an election and the commencement of the term of office made sense. Without modern means of communication and transportation, it took time for the results of elections to be known and for public officials to make the sometimes long trek to the capital city from remote areas to prepare for the convening of the legislative session. Lame Duck sessions of Congress were routine prior to the adoption of the 20th Amendment in 1933.
However, even if constitutional, Lame Duck Congresses violate the public’s sense of fairness. Members of Congress who are retiring or have been outright defeated are still able to vote for major pieces of legislation in a Lame Duck session, and would do so knowing that their voters could not retaliate.
Various media analysts have speculated that issues that could be brought up and voted on during a Lame Duck session of the current 111th Congress include unfinished bills such as climate change legislation (“Energy Cap and Trade”] and the union organization bill (“Card Check”), Immigration reform, even bills increasing taxes or instituting new ones, like a Value-Added-Tax, or changing the inheritance tax.
Concern over what a Lame Duck Congress might attempt is fueling efforts now to have every current Member of Congress sign a pledge that they will not use the lame-duck session to pass any major legislation. By asking current Members today to pledge not to contradict the voters, the average citizen is using the only recourse available to them to halt an activist Lame Duck session of Congress – inflicting shame.
For a listing of previous Lame Duck sessions of Congress see “Lame Duck Sessions Since 1933,” on the U.S. Senate’s history website. For a more detailed analysis of Lame Duck sessions in history, and all the issues they considered, see the Congressional Research Service Report, “Lame Duck Sessions of Congress, 1935-2008.”