Once Rare, Lame Ducks Are Now Routine
We now know that Congress plans to return to work after the people vote in November. Members need the extra time offered by a lame-duck session to complete work that they could not finish prior to the election. Members also want to delay until after the election the consideration of controversial issues like funding for President Trump’s border wall. Members’ routine use of lame-duck sessions to intentionally punt controversial issues to the period right after their constituents head to the polls is a departure from past practice. It also suggests that lame-duck sessions will be a regular part of the congressional toolkit moving forward, regardless of which party controls the House or Senate.
There have been 21 lame-duck sessions over the past 8 decades. But 43% of those occurred only in the last 2 decades. The significant increase in lame ducks reflects an underlying shift in how such sessions are used by members of Congress. While they were once used primarily to address unexpected events or to complete work on important legislation, lame ducks are increasingly used today to reduce the electoral impact of acting on controversial issues. This amplifies the representational dilemmas inherent in lame-duck sessions.
The list below of lame-duck sessions (and major legislation considered in them) illustrates their increased frequency and sheds some light on the shift in how members see them over time. While there are certainly examples of lame-duck sessions that resemble their contemporary use prior to 2000, they are the exception rather than the rule. However, that changes after 2000, when regular (and active) lame ducks become the rule, rather than the exception.
Past Lame-Duck Sessions
76th Congress (1940-41): The first lame-duck session held after the 20thAmendment took effect in 1935. Congress remained in session to respond to events associated with World War II. It did not consider any major legislation.
77th Congress (1942): Congress passed legislation establishing a military draft. It also passed legislation relating to overtime compensation for government employees.
78th Congress (1944): Congress reauthorized the War Powers Act, delayed a scheduled increase in the Social Security tax, and increased funding for congressional staff. The Senate confirmed Edward Stettinius as Secretary of State.
80th Congress (1948): The shortest lame-duck session since 1935. It lasted one day. During that time, Congress extended the Hoover Commission (Committee on Organization of the Executive Branch of Government). The Senate extended the authorization of the Special Small Business Committee.
81st Congress (1950-51): Congress passed a supplemental appropriations bill for the Department of Defense and foreign aid for Yugoslavia. It also approved legislation related to civil defense.
83rd Congress (1954): The Senate considered a resolution censuring Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., for conduct contrary to senatorial traditions.
91st Congress (1970-71): Congress approved two appropriations bills, a foreign aid package and legislation related to foreign military sales, the Clean Air Act Amendments, and a measure creating the Community Development Corporation.
93rd Congress (1974): Congress approved a continuing resolution for the government agencies that it had not yet funded prior to the election. Congress also passed trade-reform legislation and a measure promoting safe drinking water.
96th Congress (1980): Congress approved five appropriations bills and passed a continuing resolution for the government departments and agencies not covered in them. It approved a budget resolution, passed reconciliation legislation, created the Superfund program and approved the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation and Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act.
97th Congress (1982): Congress approved four appropriations bills and a continuing resolution to fund the departments and agencies not covered.
103rd Congress (1994): A short lame duck. The House met for one day. The Senate met for two. Congress approved the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
105th Congress (1998): The House met in the lame-duck session to consider impeachment charges against President Clinton.
106th Congress (2000): Congress approved 74 bills during the lame-duck session. Of those, 5 appropriations bills were signed into law (three were included in an omnibus). Congress also approved six continuing resolutions. It passed bankruptcy-reform legislation that was subsequently vetoed by President Clinton.
107th Congress (2002): Congress approved legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security and reauthorized the Department of Defense. It also passed appropriations bills funding the Department of Defense and military construction programs. Congress passed a continuing resolution to fund the departments and agencies not covered by these measures.
108th Congress (2004): Congress approved an omnibus appropriations bill funding the entire government. It also increased the debt ceiling and passed legislation reforming the intelligence community.
109th Congress (2006): Congress approved 115 bills, including two continuing resolutions. It also considered legislation to extend various expiring tax provisions. The Senate confirmed Robert Gates to be Secretary of Defense.
110th Congress (2008): Congress passed 12 bills that were signed into law. The House passed legislation giving the auto industry $14 billion in taxpayer-backed loans. The Senate did not approve the measure.
111th Congress (2010): Congress approved 100 bills, including three continuing resolutions. It reauthorized the Department of Defense, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, and repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The Senate ratified the New START treaty.
112th Congress (2012-2013): The lame-duck session lasted for 56 days. Congress reconvened after the elections to complete action on the fiscal cliff (expiring tax provisions) and to address the Budget Control Act sequester that was scheduled to take effect at the end of the year. It approved 88 bills, including the American Taxpayer Relief Act and a continuing resolution to fund the entire government.
113th Congress (2014): The lame duck session lasted for 53 days. Congress approved 11 appropriations bills and three continuing resolutions. The Senate confirmed 252 executive and judicial nominees.
114th Congress (2016): Congress approved a continuing resolution, the Iran Sanctions Act, 21st Century Cures Act, and reauthorized the Department of Defense. The Senate confirmed 117 nominees.
115th Congress (2018): ?
[Note: This list is not exhaustive. It was compiled using the excellent Congressional Research Service report written by Rick Beth. The most recent version of the report can be found here.]