A Short History of Lame Ducks

The Senate is set to approve a short-term continuing resolution (CR) today to fund the Department of Homeland Security until December 7. The measure also includes short-term extensions of major programs authorized by legislation like the Violence Against Women Act and the farm bill, all of which are currently scheduled to expire at the end of the month. The length of the extensions indicates that members plan on returning to work after their constituents vote in November. In other words, a lame-duck session is guaranteed.

Today, “lame duck” is used to refer to the period when Congress meets in the weeks after an election but before January 3 of every odd-numbered year, when a new Congress is formed. While the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933, was designed to put an end to such sessions, members continued to use them periodically to complete work on important legislation or to address emergencies when they ran out of time during regular sessions of Congress. But members have used them more regularly in recent years to consider significant issues that they ignored intentionally during the regular session, as well as to pass controversial bills after their constituents have gone to the polls.


Original Practice

Article I, section 4 of the Constitution originally stipulated, “Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.” After ratification, the Confederation Congress set, by law, March 4, 1789 as the official date on which the newly elected first Congress would convene. Pursuant to that law, each Congress thereafter would also convene on March 4 of every odd-numbered year.


Yet in the early Republic, Congress often convened for its regular session on the first Monday in December as prescribed by the Constitution due to the time it took for newly elected members to get their affairs in order and travel to the nation’s capital. Members would then work until the following summer, at which point they would adjourn until the next constitutionally mandated meeting time (on the first Monday in December). But when Congress returned for its next regular session, its successor had already been elected the previous November. In other words, that Congress was then a lame duck. Its members would work until March 4 of the following year when the new Congress would convene.

Accountability, Corruption, and Reform

Calls to reform the congressional calendar gained steam in the late 19th century. The shortened travel time required for most members to make it to the capital after an election highlighted the representational problems that occurred whenever Congress met in a lame duck. Reformers were especially concerned about corruption. Specifically, allegations that defeated members were selling their votes during such sessions in exchange for jobs fueled efforts to eliminate lame ducks altogether. One particularly egregious instance in 1922 led Senator George Norris, R-Neb., to propose moving Congress’s start date from March 4 to early January. Norris’s proposal was eventually adopted as part of the 20th Amendment. Taking effect in 1935, section 2 of the amendment stipulates, “Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3rd day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.”

One of the purposes of the 20th Amendment was to eliminate lame-duck sessions. Contemporaneous press reports suggest that members believed that after ratification such sessions would become a relic of the past. Moving forward, members were expected to complete their regular business before their constituents went to the polls in November. The time between the election and January 3 was intended by reformers to be “an inter-Congress adjournment.”

Contemporary Practice

As the Senate’s action today demonstrates, the 20th Amendment did not eliminate lame-duck sessions. Congress continues to meet periodically during the period after the November elections and before January 3. However, lame ducks have occurred more frequently in recent years than in the decades after ratification of the 20th Amendment. There have been 21 lame-duck sessions in the modern era (since 1940). Of those, 13 occurred during the 60-year period from 1940 to 2000. In the 18 years since then, there have been 9 lame-duck sessions. While members once used lame ducks only periodically to address emergencies or other unforeseen events and to occasionally complete work on important legislation, such sessions have become a regular feature of the congressional calendar.