Ever since the November elections, Democrats and Republicans have been arguing over what a lame duck Congress should or shouldn’t be doing. Is it appropriate for a Congress made up in part of outgoing legislators to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy? What about ratifying START to limit nuclear weapons? If the outgoing members of Congress shouldn’t make such decisions, why do we have a lame duck session at all?
It’s vestigial. At the time of the founding, it could take weeks for a senator-elect to travel from Georgia to New York or Philadelphia by horse and buggy. (Washington, D.C., became the capital in 1800.) The old Congress had to remain in office for continuity’s sake. By the 1920s, even politicians from California could be on the East Coast in a matter of days, so Congress began work on a constitutional amendment to address the lame duck period. The more radical members of Congress wanted to end legislators’ terms in office just prior to Election Day. Others felt that dissolving Congress before the election, or so soon after, would make it impossible to accomplish anything, would encourage the minority party to filibuster and endlessly amend all legislation in the final weeks—in hopes of stalling long enough to win back control. As a result, many moderates sought simply to shorten the lame duck period without eliminating it entirely. In 1932 they won out with a proposal to end an outgoing Congress at noon on the Jan. 3 after an election.
While Congress can work up until January, it’s not obligated to come into session after the election, and often doesn’t. Congress has convened a lame duck session only 18 times since ratification of the 20th Amendment. Just in terms of legislative hours, the lame duck is a small fraction of the legislative calendar. The average Congress spends 272 days in session in the House and 320 in the Senate. Lame duck meetings usually last 14 days in the House, and 16 in the Senate, which means the lame duck days represent just 5 percent of a Congress’s work days.
Lame duck Congresses are responsible for several significant pieces of legislation, even though many people today rail against post-election sessions. In 1942, the 77th Congress established a draft for 18- and 19-year-olds for World War II. In 1954, the Senate convened after the election for the sole purpose of censuring Joe McCarthy for his anti-communist inquisition. Lame duck legislators love to dole out punishment. There have been four impeachments—three federal judges and one president (Bill Clinton) during lame duck sessions. The 93rd Congress had to hold a lame duck session in 1974 to approve Nelson A. Rockefeller as vice president, after Richard Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became president. The Superfund, a federal program to clean up toxic sites, was the work of the 1980 lame ducks. The 107th Congress created the Department of Homeland Security during its lame duck session in 2002. And in 1982, lame ducks even had the charitable instincts to give Congress a 15 percent raise. Not all of them were around to collect the extra cash.
Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.