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Monday, December 20, 2010


"A very undesirable legislative condition." That is how the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, gathering in 1932, referred to the period after a bi-annual election and before the swearing in of the new Congress. The committee was describing reasons why the nation should adopt what turned out to be the twentieth amendment to the Constitution. This is the amendment which moved the beginning of the elected terms of federal offices to January from the original March date following the year of election. As the committee explained, the March date had been established in the 18th century when legislators needed a few months to close their home town affairs and move by horse-drawn coach to Washington. Such a long-drawn out period had no purpose in a faster world. But there was another reason for changing it: as Sen. George Norris, of Nebraska (pictured left), later one of those whom Sen. John F. Kennedy featured in his "Profiles in Courage," claimed, the lame duck session encouraged a kind of political fraud in which the Congress which had just been repudiated came back to meet, now absent any political mandate.

An end to lame duck sessions had long been a Progressive era goal. But when it finally passed, it needed a compromise: Congress would close not on the day after the election but on January 3, meaning that a lame duck session could still meet, albeit with seven weeks to do its work instead of the seventeen that the original Constitution's March date had offered. The thought was that real emergencies could make a lame duck session crucial to the business of the country and, in fact, during the succeeding decades, war was the primary motivator for a sitting Congress to return even though elections had chosen a new one.

Then, starting in 1994, when Newt Gingrich and the "Contract for America" gave President Clinton and the Democrats a bruising, lame duck sessions became the norm. The lame duck passed a new GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) treaty that year, creating the World Trade Organization. Another impeached President Clinton in 1998. A third created the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. So, naturally, few complained this year when the lame duck 111th Congress passed tax relief, an end to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and now considers a new START treaty. But are these really "emergencies" or attempts to work out agreements before a new Congress, more hostile to Democrats, takes office in January?


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