The lame duck session of the 111th Congress began November 16th. Lame duck sessions of Congress are the sessions that take place after an election takes place, but before the new Congress begins. They are so named because like a lame duck (made so by being shot or maimed), the body has little or no power. This is because some of the members have either lost their re-election bids or chosen to retire and a new Congress is waiting to be sworn in. The term does not strictly apply to Congress and its members; you have likely heard the term “lame duck president” as well.
Contrary to what you may have heard or the feelings that have been espoused about lame duck sessions, or legislation passed during them, are not illegal. That does not mean that they are not controversial. Prior to the ratification of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, the lame duck period for Congress (and the presidency) was from Election Day until March 4th of the next year. Progressives throughout the country called for this lame duck period to be shortened; they felt that four months allowed too much time for a Congress that may have been thrown out to pass legislation that may not reflect the will of the people (sound familiar?). Remember that travel in the late 1700s was different from today. The four months allowed newly elected officials ample time to get their affairs in order at home and make the tough and sometimes long journey to the capital city. Nevertheless, by the 1930s, when the 20th Amendment was ratified, this long period was no longer needed and the start dates for new Congresses and presidencies moved from March 4th to January 3rd and 20th respectively.
This lame duck session, several key legislative initiatives were left on the table by the 111th Congress. Among them were the debate over the Bush tax cuts, the new START nuclear arms treaty with Russia, whether to extend unemployment benefits, whether to implement provisions of the president’s debt commission and DADT repeal. Up until this week, I believed that this should have been called the “dead duck” session of Congress because it didn’t look as if anything was going to get done. However, there are signs that there may be a compromise involving the extension of the Bush tax cuts and extension of unemployment benefits, each for some period of time. A deal here will likely lead to action on the START treaty (which has strong bipartisan support) and DADT. Of course just because there appears to be progress doesn’t mean that anything will happen…this is Congress, after all. But for right now at least, I’ll say new life has been breathed into this legislative session and this duck is still lame, but it isn’t quite dead. Join the Discourse!