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What Is a Lame Duck Session?

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  • Written By: B. Turner
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2016
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In the United States (US) Congress, any members who must complete a legislative session after failing to win re-election for the next session are referred to as lame ducks. This reflects the perceived loss of power or lack of motivation a member will experience knowing he is shortly to leave his position. Any session of Congress that includes lame duck members is known as a lame duck session. While the lame duck session does not occur with every election, it does happen fairly frequently in the US. This period is traditionally associated with little progress and an inability to get things done as usual within Congress, though some lame duck sessions have proven an exception to the rule.

Senators in the US serve six year terms, while members of the House of Representatives are elected for two-year terms. General elections are held each November, and Congress typically takes a planned break to handle campaigning and election tasks during this time. Some members of Congress will opt to not run for re-election, while others will run and lose to an opponent. Both these lame ducks and the members of Congress who were re-elected successfully must then return to finish out the legislative session, which runs from November until 3 January of each year. If any lame duck members are present during this time period, it is referred to as a lame duck session.

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While lame duck sessions have occurred for many years, they were not formally recognized until 1935. During this year, Congress passed the 20th amendment to the US Constitution, which officially set 3 January of each year as the final day of the legislative session. This is also the day that lame duck members officially lose their positions, and that newly elected legislators are recognized as acting Senators or Congressmen. This date also serves as the end of a lame duck session, if applicable, and the start of a new, more productive session of Congress.

During a lame duck session, Congress is often seen as having limited power to pass laws or accomplish basic tasks. Many political commentators argue that lame duck members will simply go through the motions during this time period, and will fail to put forth real effort to represent their constituents. After losing the election or deciding to retire, these members may feel betrayed by their communities or may have simply lost interest in their jobs.

Even the members who have been re-elected face challenges during a lame duck session. These sessions are frequently characterized by infighting among members of Congress, who may even intentionally try to hamper one another's efforts during this time. This type of infighting is particularly common when the November elections bring major changes, such as a shift in control from one political party to the next. Not all lame duck sessions are unproductive, however. Some go much more smoothly, and allow members of Congress to complete their work normally without fighting or conflict.

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