This week, the lame ducks are returning to Congress for their last bit of legislating. But no one seems too excited to see them.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a "lame duck" as "a defeated member in the short session of Congress after a November election" or "a ship that is damaged, esp. one left without a means of propulsion." In the late 19th century, reporters credited President Abraham Lincoln with coming up with the nickname. The OED traces the political meaning of the word back to an 1863 issue of the Congressional Globe, which sneered that "In no event .. could it [sc. the Court of Claims] be justly obnoxious to the charge of being a receptacle of ‘lame ducks’ or broken down politicians."
Will Rogers updated the definition in 1932 in a letter to the New York Times.
Regardless of when it began, everyone agreed it sounded like the worst thing that could befall someone in Washington. In 1875, the New York Times painted a portrait of life after Capitol Hill so loudly depressing you can hardly hear the world's tiniest violin playing in the background.
Nearly 40 years later, the life of a lame duck legislator did not seem much more stimulating.
In 1883, the New York Times explained that lame ducks had two options if they wanted to stay in Washington and not go home to a "simply intolerable" life. (Niiice.) They could try to get a government job, or they could become a lobbyist.
The latter avocation is more congenial to them than any other; it keeps them in Washington, and they hang around the Capitol, half-persuading themselves that nothing has happened to them.
The fact that these losers got nice jobs was another sore spot.
Before their job in Washington officially ended, people had even fewer nice things to say about the lame ducks. If the party that benefited most from the election was not the one in charge during the last lame duck session, the image of a "repudiated Congress" passing legislation that would have no chance of success only months later was seen as downright undemocratic.
They were called a "national menace."
In 1911, one small newspaper said that "the most pitiful of the sights at the National Capital are the Has Beens."
In 1917, The Washington Post added another bird to the post-election zoo in Congress. Rare birds, they said, "are the wise or bored shining lights of the lower house who are lame ducks of their own volition. They are rare because they quit public emoluments without being asked to."
Not only is contempt for lame ducks nearly as old as our government, the government has been trying to banish them for a long time too. In the early 20th century, Congress tried to think of ways to eliminate that last lame duck session in Congress. As Colby Itkowitz reminds us at In the Loop, the efforts culminated in the 20th Amendment in 1933. The swearing-in of both presidents and new legislators was moved to January. The amendment drafters assumed that no elected official would give up their sweet Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations to come back to Washington. However, this calculation did not predict the popularity of air travel, as a professor told Post reporter David Fahrenthold when he explained why the heck we have lame duck sessions four years ago (our antipathy for lame ducks is not matched by an ability to remember why they exist, it seems).
So we're stuck with the lame ducks, although for a far shorter time than back in the old days. The complaints don't seem to have softened much.
And don't forget that lame ducks aren't limited to Congress! President Obama is also in that weird in-between spot where he has no future elections to keep him chipper. And unlike the few legislators roaming around the Capitol for the next month, his lame duckness lasts years, not weeks.
It can be lonely, as soon-to-be-former President Bill Clinton reminded everyone at his last White House Correspondents Dinner.
We might make fun of the lame ducks and complain about them, but remember that they probably feel like this on the inside too.