Seventy-one years after reformers thought they had gotten rid of lame-duck sessions of Congress, lawmakers -- victors and vanquished alike -- will trudge back to Washington in mid-November to tackle problems they could not resolve before Tuesday's elections.
Lawmakers hate these post-election sessions, which often tend to be quarrelsome and unproductive. The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, approved in 1933, changed the presidential inauguration and congressional calendars, eliminating the necessity for post-election sessions, which reformers of the era had come to regard as opportunities for corruption. But the amendment did not rule these sessions out, and now, after several decades of avoiding them as often as not, members of Congress are back in a lame-duck rut.
This is the fourth election year in a row that they have returned to take up unfinished business after the balloting is over -- a habit that may be hard to shake in the future, especially if Congress remains closely divided. Many of the recent post-election sessions reflected the lack of commanding majorities in the two chambers as well as mounting partisanship, American University political scientist James Thurber said.
In 1982, then-House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (D-Mass.) became so disgusted by a particularly long, testy and ineffectual month of post-election lawmaking that he vowed he would never call another lame-duck session, said Donald Ritchie, the associate Senate historian. O'Neill kept his promise, Ritchie noted.
During the 1982 session, senators were no less appalled. Many of them and their staffers donned little yellow lapel pins borrowed from a poultry producers group: the rear ends of ducks, their tails held high as if in mock defiance of the occasion.
But, by 1994, six years after O'Neill retired, the practice had returned. With the exception of 1996, Congress has returned after elections in every succeeding year.
"It seems we're going to 12 months a year, 24/7, a round-the-clock Congress," lamented John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
The agenda for this year's session, which begins Nov. 16 and is supposed to last no more than a week, is not a simple one: funding the domestic activities of government, raising the national debt ceiling and, possibly, enacting a compromise on reorganization of the nation's intelligence operations. Breakthroughs on other bills, such as energy and highways, are possible but not likely.
Before its pre-election recess, Congress finished only four of its 13 regular spending bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 (covering military operations and construction, homeland security and the District of Columbia).
During the post-election session, Republican leaders hope to roll most of the rest of the domestic appropriations into one bill, although some of the most contentious measures could be put off until next year. In the meantime, funding covered by these bills would continue at last year's levels.
The debt ceiling increase is needed because the government hit its $7.4 trillion borrowing limit in mid-October, forcing it to delay a federal employees' pension contribution until the legislation is passed. The House included a $690 billion increase in its version of the fiscal 2005 budget, but the Senate did not act on the budget. Lawmakers, especially House Republicans, were reluctant to cast votes on a separate bill to sanction a debt increase before the elections, fearing a voter backlash. But now time is running out.
With prospects increasingly dim for agreement on an intelligence reorganization bill before the elections, this measure -- arguably the most important legislation of the year -- appears headed for the lame-duck session, although there is no guarantee it will be ready even by then. Some lawmakers, joined by leaders of the Sept. 11 commission, worry that momentum for far-reaching change may stall after the elections.
Even the derivation of the term "lame duck" conveys a sense of failure. According to New York Times columnist and language expert William Safire, the term, imported from Britain in the 18th century, applied originally to bankrupt businessmen. By the 1830s, Safire found, it was applied to politically bankrupt politicians. Ducks, he added, have a favored position in American slang, as in "dead ducks" and "sitting ducks."
In the seven decades since approval of the 20th Amendment, Congress has held 14 lame-duck sessions, not counting this year's. They were regularly convened during World War II and once again during the Korean War. But there were long periods during peacetime when Congress stayed home after elections, including the second half of the 1950s, all of the 1960s, most of the 1970s and the late 1980s.
But in 1994, Congress reconvened to consider trade legislation and, with the exception of 1996, has been gathering after elections ever since, often because of delay in passing spending bills.
Despite their reputation for wheel-spinning, post-election sessions are not always uneventful. In a listing of post-1933 lame-duck sessions, the Senate historian's office noted that Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) was censured by the Senate at a post-election session in 1954 and President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House after the 1998 elections, although he was later acquitted by the Senate.
The 2002 lame-duck session resulted in final passage of legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security, set up the Sept. 11 commission and help insurers cover claims from any future terrorist attacks.
As for prospects of accomplishment this year, AU's Thurber figures that major shifts in the congressional lineup on Election Day could add to the incentive for further delay. If Republicans make major gains, they may prefer to wait until their new members are seated. If Democrats pick up seats, they may also prefer to wait, he said.
In any case, Thurber said, the huge backup of spending bills offers "plenty of opportunity for mischief."