Lame-duck sessions supposed to be a thing of the past, historians say

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2010; 9:17 PM

Here's the funny thing about this month's lame-duck session of Congress, in which frantic lawmakers have pinballed from tax cuts to "don't ask, don't tell" to a nuclear weapons treaty:

It's not supposed to exist.

In 1933, historians say, the country ratified a constitutional amendment intended to kill off sessions like this - in which defeated legislators return to legislate. The headline in The Washington Post at the time was "Present Lame Duck Session Will Be Last."

But because of a hole in that amendment, modern Congresses have not only met as lame ducks but have used the post-election session to take some of their most memorable votes.

On Friday, President Obama signed a giant tax-cut bill that Congress approved this week. That follows the passage of child nutrition legislation this month. And Democratic leaders could repeal the law that bans gays from serving openly in the military as soon as Saturday, before they try to rewrite immigration rules and ratify a nuclear weapons treaty with Russia.

This year's session has "the most ambitious legislative agenda that's ever been pursued in a lame-duck session since the 20th Amendment," said John Copeland Nagle, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and one of the obscure amendment's few scholars.

This lame-duck session, Nagle said, "is exactly what the 20th Amendment was designed to stop."

The session has created an odd atmosphere on Capitol Hill: There are few long-winded committee hearings, few VFW delegations to glad-hand. Instead, lawmakers are tackling one enormous issue after another, with very un-congressional efficiency.

On Thursday night, the House voted to approve an $858 billion plan to extend George W. Bush-era tax cuts and use other tax breaks to stimulate the economy. Among those voting were dozens of lawmakers who lost their bids for reelection last month.

Across the Capitol, through empty halls, Senate Democrats were bitterly disappointed that they couldn't pass a 1,924-page spending bill worth $1.2 trillion.

"Are we going to help people in America?" Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) asked plaintively on the Senate floor, after learning that GOP leaders had talked rank-and file Republicans out of voting for the bill. "Our . . . answer appears to be no."

But then Reid moved on to the remaining pieces of the Democrats' agenda. He announced that he would seek votes Saturday for the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which prohibits gays from serving openly in the military, and a bill that would overhaul parts of immigration law.

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