Are Lame Duck Sessions of Congress Unusual?

History Q & A

Mr. Purdham is a writer for the NYT.

The following brief explanation of the history of lame duck sessions of Congress appeared in the NYT on October 20, 2002.

Congress has finally gone home, but partisan deadlock and unpassed measures mean it will return after Election Day for a lame duck session, the fourth since 1994. Until the 1990's, such sessions had become rare.

"After the 1982 lame duck session, Tip O'Neill said he'd never allow another under his speakership, because it was so unproductive and such a mess," said Donald K. Ritchie of the Senate historian's office."And he never did."

The 1998 lame duck session was especially rancorous, consumed with the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Most other sessions in the modern era have also been devoted to narrow purposes, including the 1954 session in which the Senate censured Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin.

Until the 1930's, lame duck sessions were routine, since the Constitution originally provided that a new Congress should convene on the first Monday in December, fully 13 months after a general election. That schedule was devised to accommodate the difficulties of 18th-century travel and the planting and harvesting chores of an agrarian society. It also meant that the second session of each Congress routinely fell after the election that had just changed the body's membership.

Senator George Norris of Nebraska led a long crusade to change the calendar, which culminated in ratification of the 20th Amendment in 1933, setting Jan. 3 as the opening of Congress and moving the presidential inauguration up to Jan. 20 from March 4.

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