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The 'lame duck' Congress: an uninspired history

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

(Read caption) Fog envelopes Capitol Hill in Washington, at dawn Monday, Nov. 15, as Congress begins its lame duck session, following a long break for the midterm elections.

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Congressional activity that occurs after an election but before new lawmakers are sworn in, such as that now getting under way in Washington, is called a “lame-duck session.” A lawmaker who has been defeated but gets to return to Capitol Hill and cast votes one last time is called a “lame duck.” Where did this colorful avian-based language originate?

Like many aspects of US politics, it apparently has its roots in England. In the late 1700s, a “lame duck” was a British stockbroker who could not meet his debts. The image seems apt – such a broker would have damaged prospects and be unable to keep up with the rest of his flock of peers.

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But some Victorian Era dictionaries describe lame duck as deriving from old Gaelic words for hand (lamh) and misfortune (diugan). Together these would have described a businessman whose hand had been unlucky. Presumably time and usage corrupted them into the slang term lame duck.

Whatever its etymology, by the mid-1800s US news sheets were referring to politicians who stayed in office awaiting their successors as lame ducks – their clout clipped by their dwindling days in power.

Some US lame-duck periods were disasters. Until 1937, modern presidential inaugurations came in early March, and the long lame-duck interregnum encouraged drift at times of crisis.

In 1860-61, outgoing President James Buchanan did nothing as seven Southern states seceded prior to Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. In 1933-34, with America in a depression, outgoing President Herbert Hoover tried to get incoming President Franklin Roosevelt to agree on a joint economic program. The latter refused, saying he would not move until he had the levers of White House power in his own hands.

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified on Jan. 23, 1933, changed this state of affairs. Among other things, it moved to January presidential inaugurations and the swearing-in of new senators and representatives. This left less time for a power vacuum to develop – and less time for outgoing lawmakers to create legislative mischief.