The lame-duck session, and why it matters - or doesn't

Ben Pershing
Tuesday, November 16, 2010

With a lame-duck session underway on Capitol Hill, we know you're brimming with questions about what exactly Congress is doing and why. Fear not: Your new In Session columnist has the answers.

What e xactly is a lame-duck session?

We'll defer here to the Congressional Research Service, which explains: "The expression 'lame duck' was originally applied in 18th century Britain to bankrupt businessmen, who were considered 'lame' in the sense that the impairment of their powers rendered them vulnerable, like a game bird injured by shot."

The term was eventually applied to politicians who had announced plans to retire or had been defeated for reelection. It also describes any House or Senate session that occurs between Election Day and the start of the next Congress.

Obvious jokes about bankruptcy aside, this year's session will feature a large number of lawmakers who are themselves lame ducks: More than 100 members of the House or Senate won't be back in January. Keep an eye on the office supplies.

How often do these sessions happen?

According to the CRS, this is the 18th lame-duck session since 1935, meaning that they have occurred in about one of every two Congresses during that span. Lately, they've become routine: This is the seventh Congress in a row to include a post-election session.

How long will the session be?

Both chambers will be in session this week, then will go back into recess for Thanksgiving week. After that, the picture becomes cloudy, completely dependent on how ambitious Democrats are and how cooperative Republicans choose to be.

In the last Congress, the chambers stayed in session until the first week of January. Congress left town three weeks earlier than that in both 2006 and 2004, and in 2002 lawmakers managed to finish work before Thanksgiving. A repeat of last year, when the Senate passed health-care reform on Christmas Eve, looks unlikely, but the only thing that's certain is that no one should make holiday travel plans just yet.

What will get done?

Remember the earlier reference to lame ducks facing "impairment of their powers"? Therein lies the problem for House Democrats and, to a lesser extent, Senate Democrats as they attempt to get a few more bills passed before Republicans gain a lot more clout in the next Congress.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company