Lawmakers Have Full Plate for Lame-Duck Session Snuffed out by the voters, lame-duck lawmakers are summoned back to Washington by a force beyond their control: unfinished business. This year's lame-duck session has plenty on the agenda: appropriations bills, the Vietnam trade pact and the confirmation of Robert Gates are just a few.
NPR logo Lawmakers Have Full Plate for Lame-Duck Session

Lawmakers Have Full Plate for Lame-Duck Session

This is that awkward and embarrassing week in Washington when the people who just won seats in Congress come to town to vote in leadership elections and run smack into the people they just beat in last week's elections.

The new folks are known as freshmen, of course, beginning their orientation. But there are also words for the members who lost but had to come back to work anyway. Zombies. The living dead. Snuffed out by the voters, they return as if summoned back by a force beyond their control. And like all incumbents stunned at the swift alienation of voters' affections, they look pretty bad.

The force summoning them back in this pitiable condition is the lame-duck session. We have such when Congress has left significant business undone and gone home in September (to campaign for re-election).

This year, the unfinished business includes the great majority of the spending bills Congress must pass to keep the federal government operating. It also includes a trade bill with Vietnam (where the president is going later this week) and the confirmation of a new secretary of defense (in a time of war).

There are some other items President Bush would like to see attended to, as well. They include the confirmation of his U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, who has been serving in temporary status. Also on the table is the bill approving the administration's five-year-old program for tapping U.S. phones without a warrant if a call comes in from a suspected terrorist overseas.

And then there any number of other matters, including the India nuclear power deal and a bill making it easier for the administration to grant oil and gas leases.

The lame-duck session will not get to all of this. In fact, it may not get to much of it. The appropriations bills must be done, and everyone expects that to happen. The Vietnam trade pact should pass. The confirmation of Robert Gates to succeed Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon is also likely, given the general bipartisan eagerness to see Rumsfeld go.

But the rest of the agenda may just evanesce. It's too much to expect a few weeks of lame-duck session to accomplish more than this Congress has done in any of its previous 22 months.

This is not to say that lame-duck sessions by nature can't do big things. The phrase "lame duck" may imply ineffectiveness, but it's really not right to think of a post-election Congress as weak.

Lame-duck sessions have at times been highly effective, even historic. Consider the House that trooped back to Washington after the midterms of November 1998. The Republicans in the House that month had lost five seats, a surprising setback considering they had expected to gain a dozen or more (their campaign chairman said 20 or more). The issue of that autumn was the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. The House GOP was sure they had the people on their side.

That meant their election losses were stinging enough to force out Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Moses who had led the GOP to majority status after 40 years wandering in the wilderness. But the losses were not enough to dissuade the remaining Republican leaders from their assault on the White House.

The articles of impeachment had already emerged from the House Judiciary Committee prior to the election. So it was simply a matter of will to drive the House to vote on them in December 1998. And that will was provided by a Texas member named Tom DeLay, who was then the House Majority Whip.

So the House voted for impeachment on partisan lines, even though opinion polls showed the public opposed. The Senate never developed much appetite for the whole business and acquitted Clinton on all counts later that winter.

So the issue with lame-duck sessions is not their potency or their importance. It is, rather, their legitimacy.

The phrase "lame duck" itself came into use in the U.S. Congress in the early 1800s. It referred to members who tried to feather their nests in the months between electoral defeat in November and the arrival of the new Congress in March. (The unamended Constitution specified an interval twice as long as it is today.)

But the phrase had been in earlier use in England in the 1700s, where brokers on the London Stock Exchange called you a lame duck if you tried to go on trading securities after you had failed to make good on settlement. So the term made a rather natural transition to politics.

Lame ducks remain in office, but no longer carry the same imprimatur of popular will. They are serving out their legal terms and discharging their official duties. But their connection to the ultimate source of authority has been stretched to the breaking point.

Ron Elving co-hosts It's All Politics, a weekly podcast, with NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin.