Discuss as:

As 'lame duck' looms, a look back

Newt Gingrich is warning that “the Left are planning to subvert the will of the American people” with it. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia unsuccessfully introduced legislation to quash it. And three Republican Senate candidates are making the argument that they are uniquely positioned to stand in its way.

Republicans are threatening that a lame duck session of Congress -- when members who have retired or been voted out of office will return with their colleagues to cast a final series of votes before the next session begins in January -- will be packed with legislative activity as Democrats hurry to ram through progressive proposals before an expected influx of new GOP members.

Because of special election rules in Delaware, West Virginia, and Illinois, the senators elected in those states on Nov. 2 will be seated almost immediately. Republican candidates Christine O’Donnell and John Raese have used their ability to “stop the lame duck” legislation as a talking point during their campaigns, and Mark Kirk of Illinois has even launched a website called saveusfromthelameduck.com.

The major issue that Congress is expected to address in the lame duck session will be a vote on the extension of tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has filed cloture on a handful of other bills -- including one that would address food safety regulations and the stalled energy overhaul bill . Also on the to-do list: an omnibus spending bill to fund the government, the ratification of an arms treaty, and possibly another attempt at the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy for gays in the military.

But it’s unclear how many of those agenda items will actually be passed, no matter how the election turns out.

Lame duck sessions generally involve more congressional waddling than soaring legislative achievements – or even broken gridlock. And it’s worth noting that, in the United States Senate, the 21 Democrats up for re-election in 2012 likely won't be eager to incur the wrath of their constituents if the ballot-box rejection of many of their colleagues is still fresh in their minds.

Lame duck sessions may be unpopular, but they’re no longer uncommon. There have been 17 lame duck sessions since 1935, when the passage of the 20th amendment adjusted the start date of new members to create today’s two month gap between Election Day and the start of the new Congress. Such sessions were generally sporadic until the mid-1990s; seven of the last eight Congresses have held them.

The term “lame duck” was born among the brokers of the London stock exchange in the 18th century, who used it as a slang term for those who defaulted on their debts.

The first lame duck session was, well, pretty lame. In 1940, international tensions prompted congressional leaders to meet regularly without taking an extended break for the election. But very little was actually accomplished in the days after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected for an unprecedented third term, in part because the House and Senate chambers were being repaired, forcing members to meet in alternate rooms. There often weren’t enough lawmakers around for a quorum.

But there have been some productive lame duck sessions, even some after one party had made substantial gains on Election Day.

In 1980, Democrats lost control of the Senate but not the House. In a lame duck session between Nov. 12 and Dec. 16, the House enacted over 100 laws, including a controversial “superfund” bill for cleaning up chemical contamination. And in 1994, after Democrats suffered spectacular losses on Election Day, the Senate finally allowed a vote on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the most ambitious international trade agreement in the nation’s history. It passed with a broad bipartisan majority through both chambers.

The most dramatic lame duck session to date was in 1998, when President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House during a lame duck Congress. (The subsequent Senate trial occurred after the new Congress began. Clinton’s lawyers considered using the lame-duck status of the House to argue that the impeachment vote should be voided, but ultimately decided against it.)

Participating in the vote that ultimately approved the articles of impeachment were 21 Republicans -- including retiring Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich -- and 17 Democrats who would not be returning for the next Congress. Only one departing lawmaker, Democrat Rep. Paul McHale of Pennsylvania, broke ranks with his party on the vote.