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Ask Cokie: 'Lame Duck' Session Of Congress


Congress is finishing a lame-duck session. That's where lawmakers meet after an election in which some were just defeated. There is no duck here - no animals were harmed - but lame duck is what it's called. So what's the point? Cokie Roberts is here. She answers your questions about how politics and the government work. Hi there, Cokie.


INSKEEP: And our first question goes to the origin story. It's from Chelsea Seachord, who says, I would like to know where the ridiculous name, lame duck, came from.

ROBERTS: Well, actually, it goes back to 18th century England, where it was used to describe someone who couldn't meet their obligations in the stock exchange, and they waddled away from debt like a lame duck. It's not clear when it came into use to describe a politician who's either been defeated or could no longer be re-elected because of term limits. It's possible that Abraham Lincoln used the term, but the general belief is the first president it was applied to was Calvin Coolidge.

INSKEEP: Oh, well, it's much more fun to think that it would be Abraham Lincoln, I suppose.

ROBERTS: Always.

INSKEEP: Our next questioner wants to know what these sessions actually accomplish. This is Daniel Himmelstein from Amherst, Mass.

DANIEL HIMMELSTEIN: Of all the lame-duck sessions of Congress, which one was the most productive?


ROBERTS: Well, in the 20th century, there have been a couple of notable ones. In 1954, only the Senate came back for the sole purpose of censuring Joe McCarthy. And in 1998, only the House came back to impeach Bill Clinton.

But there have been lots of important pieces of legislation in lame ducks. In 1980, the Superfund for environmental cleanup was passed. In 1994, a global trade agreement that founded the World Trade Organization. And, of course, in 2008, the financial crisis. And then there are always budgetary issues keeping the government open.

INSKEEP: And here we are having discussions about keeping the government open this very week.

ROBERTS: Here we are.

INSKEEP: Here's a question about something we're seeing happen right now. This is Daniel Sterling in Cary, N.C.

DANIEL STERLING: How often has the lame-duck majority enacted major policy changes before a shift in power?

INSKEEP: Oh. Now, this is relevant because you have lame-duck legislators in Wisconsin changing laws for the future governor of a party they don't like.

ROBERTS: And in Michigan. And the listener saw it in North Carolina in the last election. But at the national level, it used to happen all the time. There was a long period between the election and the next Congress. That was changed by the 20th Amendment in 1933, which is called the lame-duck amendment, that moved the start of a new Congress up to the beginning of January, rather than the beginning of March.

INSKEEP: Oh, it used to be such a long session that somebody had to continue governing the country, so serious business would be done. Is there a lame-duck session of all the ones that you've covered that you particularly remember, Cokie?

ROBERTS: Well, of course impeachment, which also featured huge disruptions in the Republican leadership.

But in terms of understanding how elections can make a difference in these sessions, 1982 is the year that stands out to me. It was the first election in the Reagan presidency. The Republicans had lost 26 House seats in the midst of a recession. And women voters made up the majority of the electorate. House came back, tried to put a public works jobs bill into the big budget bill, and it had a big public service component as a nod to women. Reagan threatened to veto it, so it was dropped until the next Congress.

But, you know, no one was happy in that lame-duck session. Everyone, including those of us in the media, wore little lapel buttons that featured the rear end of a duck.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I hope you still have that somewhere.

ROBERTS: Somewhere.

INSKEEP: Cokie, good to talk with you. Thanks.

ROBERTS: Always nice to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Cokie Roberts answers your questions about how politics and the government work. And you can reach out to her at or with the hashtag #askcokie.

(SOUNDBITE OF VULFPECK'S "FUNKY DUCK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.