In the 18th century, businessmen in London suffering from financial problems were described as having to “waddle out of the alley like a lame duck.” Over time, the term started being used to describe anyone who was ineffectual.
Starting in 20th century America, the term was used to describe ineffectual politicians. For instance, President Lincoln declared that a “senator or representative out of business is a sort of lame duck. He has to be provided for.”
Lame duck elected officials are those who have lost a re-election bid or are not seeking re-election but have not yet finished their term. A lame duck session of Congress occurs between the election and beginning of the new session and includes lame duck members rather than newly-elected members.
How It Works
Lame duck sessions of Congress occur between the election in November and the inauguration of the new Congress on January 3rd. Though Congress is not required to reconvene after the November election, it almost always does. It often uses the lame duck session to consider important votes, approve the federal budget, or discuss fiscal policy. During this time, Congress members who have been voted out or who are retiring can still vote and participate in proceedings. These individuals often act unpredictably. Since they are no longer accountable to voters, they are more likely to vote for bills they know their constituents would not support. They can make controversial decisions without facing consequences.
U.S. presidents are often referred to as lame ducks in their second term because they are no longer concerned with re-election. Usually, second-term presidents are deemed less effective because they have less political capital; it is harder for presidents to make deals with people who know they will soon be out of office. However, they are far from powerless. Second-term presidents are typically concerned with their legacy and are more free to make decisions without worrying about consequences from voters. They can focus on less popular policies and often try to accomplish as much as possible before leaving.
The 20th Amendment to the Constitution is nicknamed the “Lame Duck Amendment” because it shortened the period between the elections and when the new president and Congress take office. Before the Amendment was passed, newly elected officials did not take office until March 4th to give them time to travel to Washington, D.C. By 1933, though, travel time was no longer an issue. This lame duck session allowed dozens of Congress members who had been voted out to stick around and vote on legislation for months. The 20th Amendment changed the beginning of the Congressional session to January 3rd and the inauguration of the president to January 20th.
Lame duck presidents have made a number of significant decisions, including ones that contradicted their earlier positions. For example, Ronald Reagan signed a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev toward the end of his presidency even though he had opposed arms control earlier. They also may pursue controversial goals that could have diminished their re-election chances in their first terms. For example, in December 2014, Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would work to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, which was an extremely controversial move.
Ultimately, lame ducks may be more motivated to get things done and preserve their legacy. They are also no longer constrained by re-election concerns. However, they are also less accountable to constituents and may make controversial decisions opposed by most voters, meaning they bring with them both positives and negatives.