What is a 'lame duck' session?

By Katie Connolly
BBC News, Washington

Image caption,
Republican leader John Boehner must wait until January before becoming House Speaker

As soon as the results of November's mid-term elections were known, Washington DC's chattering classes began urgently debating what might be accomplished in a "lame duck" session.

To most non-Americans, the term "lame duck" is unfamiliar.

In the US, it refers to the period after an election but before new officeholders - either a new president or new members of Congress - assume their positions.

The term has been traced back to the British Stock Exchange in the mid-1800s, where it was used to refer to a man unable to pay his debts.

The Online Etymology Dictionary quotes Thomas Love Peacock who wrote: "A lame duck is a man who cannot pay his differences, and is said to waddle off."

It traces the term's journey into the political sphere in the late 1800s through President Abraham Lincoln, who has been quoted as saying that a "senator or representative out of business is a sort of lame duck. He has to be provided for."

Nowadays, lame duck sessions are quite common.

The US Constitution firmly sets out he terms for the president and Congress. A president's term shall begin on 20 January and Congress convenes on 3 January. By default then, any congressional action after an election and before 3 January is taken by a lame duck Congress.

Parting shots

In Washington, the idea of convening a lame duck Congress can strike fear into partisan hearts, especially those of the winning party when control of Congress is about to change hands, as it will in 2011.

Conventional wisdom assumes that the party voted out will use the dwindling days of its majority to ram through controversial legislation, a parting snub to the new leaders from those with little left to lose.

Image caption,
It is unclear if outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi will try to pass significant bills in the lame duck session

As far as conspiracy theories go, that's a believable one. But in reality, most lame duck sessions are fairly uneventful. They usually tie up loose ends, passing spending bills that enable the government to function and the like.

There have been exceptions though. Following 1998's mid-term elections, Congress reconvened to impeach President Bill Clinton.

Four years earlier, a lame duck session ratified the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, a critical document that guides international trade.

2010 session

This year, the biggest issue looming over the lame duck session revolves around taxes. The so-called Bush tax cuts are set to expire, which would impact the pay packets of the vast majority of Americans.

The Obama administration had initially favoured extending the tax cuts only for lower and middle class families, allowing taxes on richer Americans to return to their previous levels. Republicans want all the tax cuts extended.

Although no final deal has been made, it looks increasingly like Republicans will win this fight.

Beyond that, Republican worries that Democrats may use the session to pass controversial bills like climate change legislation seem unfounded.

In part, that is because Democrats - seeing such a large group of their colleagues punished during mid-terms for their legislative ambitions - do not appear to have an appetite for risk.

Democrats may also worry that many voters will not distinguish between bills passed in a lame duck or regular session.

All they may note is that after an election when Republicans won big, Congress started working again. And that is probably not the message they want to send right now.