(Lame) Duck and Cover: A History of the Lame Duck

A lame duck is a fascinating species, whose habitat is at the center of expiring government, but which can only be spotted after election season.

The term “lame duck” is associated nowadays with elected officials coming near the end of their term, specifically when their successor has already been elected. The term originated, however, with the London stock exchange in 1761, in reference to investors who were unable to pay debts. But by the 19th century, the United States commandeered the word to be used in reference to politicians. The image is that of a wounded duck which, during migration season, is suddenly unable to keep up with its flock, and is left behind to do as it pleases. This November, after the midterm elections, but before the new, and potentially conservative, Congress takes office, America may witness again the phenomenon of the “lame duck Congress.”

Lame duck Senators and Representatives lose their incentive to act responsibly, since they will not be made accountable for their actions in a future vote. Whether they are taking last-minute advantage of the perks of their position (lame duck Presidents, for instance, are known for granting a flurry of presidential pardons) or working in a last-minute frenzy to ensure they leave their mark behind, a brief bird-watching tour of lame duck history will show that lame ducks have a tendency to waddle as fast as they can.

Bird-Watching Through ‘Lame Duck’ History

The first time presidential power changed from the hands of one political party to another was when Federalist John Adams (President number two) lost to Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, who favored a decrease of federal powers. For the months leading up to the inauguration, America had both a lame duck President and lame duck Congress – both of whom scrambled to leave behind the last vestiges of their power. Through the Judiciary Act of 1801, Congress established several new positions for circuit judges. During the nineteen days between the passage of this act and the end of his term, Adams appointed Federalist judges to fill these positions. These have been referred to as the “midnight judges,” because popular legend has it that Adams signed them on the midnight before Jefferson was sworn into office.  Yet, aside from the final quacks of a lame duck, this shift in power was peaceful, as Jefferson noted in his inaugural address; it was one of the first peaceful transitions of such great significance in world history.

Lame duck sessions have had their controversies, such as the disastrous lame duck transition from President Buchanan to President Lincoln, during which the first states of the Confederacy seceded from the Union. Understandably, in 1932, there were significant efforts to end the lame duck period forever, and there is a movement to do so even today. In 1933, the inauguration was moved up to January, thereby shortening lame duck season.

Make Way for Ducklings

While a lame duck President continues to serve until the end of his or her term, there is no law requiring a lame duck Congress to hold sessions after elections.  Before 1933, there was a lengthy lame duck session from November to March, yet, since the inauguration was moved to January, some lame duck Congresses have even chosen not to reconvene after elections. They feel that it would be wrong to pass legislation after the people voted them out of office.

However, this is not always the case, and when a major party loses Congress, there is always the temptation to pass legislation that the people would disapprove of before the new Senators and Representatives have the power to stop it. For instance, in 1980, the lame duck Democratic Congress hastily pushed through the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 in December so that it could be signed by President Carter before President Reagan took office.

How the next lame duck session will be handled is anybody’s guess, but murmurings from House and Senate liberals seem to indicate that a lame duck session is not outside the realm of possibility.  Americans must remain vigilant, since it is not likely that the next lame duck Congress will fly away quietly.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 27th, 2010 at 1:00 am and is filed under History News, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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