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Lame-duck session hasn't been so lame

"We have got to move this along," Reid said.

All of this would be a surprise, historians say, to lawmakers from the 1930s. They thought they had finally stopped a congressional practice that had caused controversy since John Adams (Federalist-Mass.) was president.

The 20th Amendment

The trouble with lame-duck sessions began in 1801, when the outgoing Federalists used their last days in power to help appoint a bunch of judges. It flared up again in 1922, when President Warren Harding and the lame-duck Republicans tried to ram through unpopular legislation after their defeats.

Opponents said this was un-democratic: These sessions seemed to violate the ever-popular Washington rule that "elections have consequences." Finally, Congress passed - and the states ratified - the 20th Amendment.

Historians say lawmakers thought they were ending lame-duck Congresses forever.

"This amendment will free Congress of the dead hand of the so-called 'lame duck,' " Rep. Wilburn Cartwright (D-Okla.) said as it was debated in 1932.

But there was a problem. The amendment didn't actually say it would end lame-duck Congresses forever. Its text only moved Congress's end date from March back to early January (it also shifted the presidential inauguration from March to Jan. 20).

At that time, historians say, it was inconceivable that lawmakers would journey back to Washington to meet for a few weeks after Thanksgiving.

"The big mistake of the crafters of the 20th Amendment was that they didn't really anticipate airplane travel," said Bruce Ackerman, a Yale University law professor. "It takes a lot of time to go from a district in Texas by train to Washington, D.C. Who's going to schlep there?"

Still, for the next 47 years, the amendment seemed mostly to work as intended. There were some lame-duck sessions, often in wartime, but no grand legislative agendas.

Then, historians say, things started to change.

Fighting over lame duck

In 1980, Democrats came back after losing the presidency and the Senate and passed major bills, including one that created the Superfund toxic-cleanup program.

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