Lame Ducks: Presidents, Amendments, and Sessions

The Hidden Power of Being a Lame Duck

lame duck
••• Photo: PNC, Getty Images

Lame duck is an elected official who is in office but whose successor has already been elected. He or she can also become a lame duck when facing retirement or the end of a term limit. The lame duck period is one of transition.

Most people assume lame duck politicians have less power. They have less ability to negotiate because they can no longer give favors. They don't have as much dealmaking power since everyone knows they won't be coming back. 

But the status does confer a hidden power. They are no longer beholden to voters. They can make decisions that support their legacy despite the consequences. That unique status can sometimes make them dangerous.

Lame Duck President 

Any U.S. president who has won a second term in office automatically becomes a lame duck. The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the president from serving a third term. He doesn't have to worry about getting re-elected.

As a result, lame-duck presidents are more concerned with their legacy. They can focus on policies that are less popular, but more far-reaching. 

For example, President Ronald Reagan signed an arms control treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He famously asked him to "tear down this wall" in a speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987. That was despite his opposition to arms control during his presidency.

In his second term, President George W. Bush fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In 2007, he increased troops in the Iraq War. That was despite his claim that the war was over in 2004. The War on Terror has gone on to $2.4 trillion to the debt as of the Fiscal Year 2020 budget.

Lame Duck Amendment

The lame duck amendment is the popular name for the 20th amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1933. It required newly-elected presidents to take office on January 20 following their November election. Congressional members must take office on January 3 of the year following their elections.

Prior to that, they waited until March 4 of the following year before taking office. That was to give them enough time to settle their affairs in their home district and travel to Washington, D.C.

By 1933, travel time was no longer a problem. At the same time, an almost six-month lame duck session was becoming a big one. Almost one-fourth of the members of the 72nd Congress had been defeated, thanks to the Great Depression. But the newly elected members and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to wait until March before being able to get the country back on its feet again.

Lame Duck Session of Congress

The lame duck session of Congress takes place after the November mid-term elections. The members who lost the election are only in office a few more weeks. Their replacements are sworn in on January 6 of the following year. 

Lame duck sessions only occur in even-numbered years if Congress reconvenes after the elections. Since 2000, the House and Senate have done just that every year. Congress uses the lame duck session to consider important votes. Sometimes it's because it hasn't gotten the work done in time. 

That's especially bad if the federal budget has not yet been approved. It's supposed to be approved by October 1, but it usually isn’t, especially in an election year. Often Congress will approve emergency contingency funding, just to keep the government in business until after the election. Then, the lame duck session continues the emergency funding until the new officials take office. 

Other times fiscal policy is deliberately delayed until after the election. That protects Congress members up for re-election from voters but violates the intent of the Constitution. Lame duck members are no longer accountable.  A Senator who was voted out of office can vote for a bill they know their constituents wouldn't like.

A lame duck session of Congress is bad for the economy. The outgoing members are unpredictable. They may stall bills to vent their frustration. Some may trade votes for post-election positions. This creates uncertainty that makes it difficult for businesses to plan for the future.

How the Lame Duck Got Its Name

The expression originated in 18th-century London. It referred to someone who could not pay his loans. It also referred to a stockbroker who couldn't pay his losses. He had to "waddle out of the alley like a lame duck." For that reason, the term lame duck can also refer to anyone who is ineffectual.

In politics, President Abraham Lincoln first used the phrase lame duck when referring to outgoing President Calvin Coolidge. He said, "[a] senator or representative out of business is a sort of lame duck. He has to be provided for."  

The Bottom Line

Never trivialize the value of lame duck politicians. They still have the power to issue orders, pardons, and edicts that may not be favorable to the platforms of their replacements or to the current voter consensus. As such, it may be a beneficial move by Congress if it were to dispense with its lame duck sessions.

Thankfully, the lame duck amendment of 1933 significantly shortened the time an outgoing politician could remain in office before being replaced. Originally, last termers were given six months to stay. With the amendment, only about a month and a half of transition time is sanctioned. Given today’s fast-paced lifestyle, perhaps it’s high time another amendment be due to cut this transition time even shorter.