Issues & AdvocacyFederal
The Lame Duck Waddles In
This week, Congress returns to Washington for a lame duck session that will likely last into December. Coming on the heels of last week’s election, the lame duck session raises many important questions:
• Will Congress deal with the “fiscal cliff”?
• Will President Obama and Congressional Republicans find compromise?
• What exactly do injured waterfowl have to do with the workings of Congress anyway?
We’ll answer the first two questions on Thursday, but first we’d like to offer a brief primer on the “lame duck” itself:
What is a “lame duck” session of Congress?
A lame duck session takes place when Congress meets to debate legislation right after an election but before newly elected members are sworn in, which takes place the first week of January.
Where does the term come from?
According to our sources (Wikipedia), the term “lame duck” originated in Great Britain in the 1700s to describe bankrupt businessmen. It has been used in the U.S. and elsewhere since the 1800s to describe any elected official still in office but have either been defeated for re-election or are not running for re-election.
Are lame duck sessions of Congress common?
There have been 16 lame duck sessions since the 1940s, the last in 2010.
Who are my representatives during the lame duck?
Here’s where it gets tricky. On Election Day you voted for a candidate to represent you in the House for the next two years, and – in many cases – a Senator as well. However, last week’s victors do not take office until early January. Therefore, your representatives in the lame duck are those who served you over the last two years – even those who lost last week and whose successors have been named. (Even had President Obama lost last week, he still would hold the power to sign or veto whatever Congress sends him until January 20.)
To make things more confusing, states redrew their Congressional districts this year. But those new districts do not take effect until January, meaning that the “old” borderlines are still in effect.
Why does Congress hold lame ducks?
Generally, the purpose is to finish whatever business was left undone prior to the election. When a two-year Congress ends and a new Congress is seated in early January, all bills become moot and would need to be re-introduced. A lame duck gives Congress one last chance to pass legislation. In practice, lame ducks are often when Congress grapples with issues that it was not able to resolve – or didn’t want to resolve – before the election, issues which are usually the thorniest and have the most political pitfalls.
Why do members of Congress who lost get to vote on bills?
In Britain, the victors of parliamentary elections take office the next day (even the Prime Minister gets booted out of 10 Downing Street less than 24 hours after the vote if his or her party loses). In the U.S., though, members of Congress are elected to complete terms (two years for the House, six for the Senate) that end in January. Therefore, even if they will not be here in 2013, their election the last time around gives them the right (and duty) to legislate for a full two years.
What will this year’s lame duck deal with?
Mainly the so-called fiscal cliff, the combination of spending cuts and tax increases slated to take effect at the very end of the year, which is why Congress can’t wait until 2013 to address. In addition, Congress has yet to pass the annual bill authorizing Defense Department programs as well as other bills on cybersecurity and farm policy that many lawmakers want to pass. But since it is a continuation of the current Congressional session, any bill could in theory come up, which is why the AIA remains vigilant about tracking the action,
Will there be any real ducks, lame or otherwise, in Washington?
A number of ducks do in fact reside in and around Washington, D.C., in the Reflecting Pool, Tidal Basin and other bodies of water. In addition, tourists can take a “duck” tour of the city, although the AIA does not endorse specific tour operators.
Check back on Thursday for a more in-depth look at what the current lame duck session will address!
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