How a Lame Duck Session Hurts the Economy

Beware of the Bite of the Lame Duck

lame duck
National Statuary Hall, United States Capitol, Washington DC. Photo: PNC, Getty Images

Definition: Lame duck is any elected official who is not running for office again. For that reason, lame duck usually implies that the politician has less power. Here's why that's not always true.

Lame Duck Session of Congress

The lame duck session of Congress takes place after the November mid-term elections which only happens in even-numbered years. The members who lost the election are only in office a few more weeks, since their replacements are sworn in on January 6 of the following year.


Even though lame duck members still have the same right to vote, they don't have as much dealmaking power since everyone knows they won't be coming back.  That kind of negotiating ability is important in setting fiscal policy.

As a result, it's very possible that nothing happens during a lame duck session. Outgoing members of Congress just stall bills or vote to vent their frustration. The necessity of compromise has disappeared. Therefore, a lame duck session in Congress is usually bad for the economy because of the uncertainty.

It is especially bad if the Federal budget has not yet been approved.  It's supposed to be approved by October 1, but it usually doesn'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.


Lame Duck President

Any U.S. President who has won a second term in office automatically becomes a lame duck. That's because the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the President from serving a third term.Therefore, 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 a little less popular, and a little more far-reaching. (Source: Megan Garber, A Better Way to Say 'Lame Duck,' The Atlantic, January 21, 2015)

For example, Ronald Reagan signed an arms control treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and famously asked him to "Tear down this wall," in a speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987. In his second term, George W. Bush fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and increased troops in the Iraq War, claiming some major victories. 

Lame Duck Amendment

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

However, by 1933 travel time was no longer a problem, while a nearly six-month lame duck session was becoming a big one. Nearly one-fourth of the members of the Seventy-second Congress had been defeated, thanks to the Great Depression.

However, the newly elected members and President Roosevelt had to wait until March before being able to do anything to get the country back on its feet again. (Source: Lame Duck AmendmentAnnenberg Classroom)

How Did Lame Duck Get Its Name?

The expression originated in 18th-century London and referred to someone who could not pay his loans. It also referred to a stockbroker who couldn't pay his losses, and had to "waddle out of the alley like a lame duck." (Source: Ed Quillen, The Origin of Lame DuckDenver Post, January 1, 2009)

In politics, President 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."