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For Congress, 'lame duck' doesn't really fit the bill

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By Erin McKean
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 7:00 PM

If you had somehow managed to filter out all the news of November's midterm elections, you could be forgiven for thinking in the past few weeks that perhaps Congress had finally buckled down, stopped posturing and gotten to work - maybe started early on some new year's resolutions.

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Look at all that was passed: a huge compromise tax bill, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," a major food safety bill, the New START treaty and the 9/11 first responders health-care measure.

That was the work of the lame-duck Congress. But the idea that this Congress limped out or was in any way lame seems risible.

The 111th Congress capped its remarkable term - which historian Alan Brinkley called "probably the most productive session of Congress since at least the '60s" - with a flurry of legislative activity that President Obama described as "the most productive post-election period we've had in decades."

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) called the end-of-session frenzy "a capitulation in two weeks of dramatic proportions," adding on Fox News Radio on Tuesday: "Harry Reid has eaten our lunch."

Hardly the activity of work-shirking goldbrickers intent only on sending out resumes. In that light, perhaps it's time to stop using "lame duck" to describe the last days in office of un-reelected elected officials.

The term's been in use in American politics since at least the early 1900s, though it was initially used by 18th-century Britons to disparage people who couldn't pay their debts. (They "waddled off without paying," per one 19th-century book on London. Or perhaps, like lame ducks, the debtors "didn't have a feather to fly with.") From there the phrase jumped to "politically bankrupt" politicians, according to William Safire's Political Dictionary. (A related political term, according to Safire, is the "eunuch rule," which refers to term limits that keep governors from succeeding themselves immediately, to prevent the building of potent political machines.)

But now the "lame ducks" need a new name. On Twitter, someone floated the notion of an "angry bird Congress," a great term to note the passion of the past few weeks, but perhaps tied a bit too closely to a faddish, Finnish video game. What other words can we use to convey the last-minute rush of effort by these legislators?

If we want to keep the hyphen, we could turn the focus from their status to their efforts: a last-minute, last-ditch or all-out Congress (that last working on two levels: Lawmakers go all-out before they all go out).

We could use time metaphors and talk of the legislators' rapidly approaching curfew, or borrow the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and talk about the "two-weeks-to-midnight" Congress, with big countdown graphics in all the papers.

The lawmakers could be like college students, pulling all-nighters to meet deadlines and get their work in under the wire.

And there are always sports metaphors in Washington, lots of Hail Mary passes, getting back in the game and so forth. Perhaps the most apt metaphor for this Congress is to call its members "buzzer beaters" and say they "left it all on the field."

Or maybe it's better to focus on what this legislative body is: the expired product of an old election. We could call it the relict Congress (as in "the relict of the last election"), the leftovers or the tail end.

If we think of lawmaking as an industrial process and the lame-duck session as a byproduct, we could call it the tailings (what's left over after ore has been processed), or we could use the fancy Latin "caput mortuum" (what's left over after the distilling process) or "residuum" - "that which is left over after any process," according to the Century Dictionary. This leads to the question of nominative determinism (the phenomenon by which people named Payne become dentists, etc.): Would a more industrial-sounding Congress have been able to take up cap-and-trade?

I think our best option is to gender-neutralize and reclaim the term "dowager" for our soon-to-leave legislators.

"Dowager" is technically, also according to the Century Dictionary, the "title given to a widow to distinguish her from the wife of her husband's heir bearing the same name: applied particularly to the widows of princes and persons of rank." If you think of the old election as the late prince, then the new legislature is the spouse of the most recent election - the heir - and the dowager Congress is the widow: displaced, sure, but not powerless. (There are many "dower houses" in Britain where old spouses had to move. This could lead to puns involving the House of Representatives - think of the headline writers, people.)

Using "dowager" would help reporters, too. Instead of having to laboriously indicate which lawmakers hadn't been reelected, they could just say "the dowager senator from State X."

However bad "lame duck" is, it could be worse - we could have the Rump Congress, on the model of the British Rump Parliament, the members of the Long Parliament who escaped being expelled by Oliver Cromwell in 1648 for being unwilling to try King Charles for treason. Legislators are compared to that part of the anatomy often enough. I'm sure they prefer the comparison to waterfowl, however lame.

Erin McKean is the chief executive and founder of Wordnik, an online dictionary, and a former editor in chief for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press. Her first novel, "The Secret Lives of Dresses," will be published in February.


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