What Is a Lame Duck?

Lame-duck refers to a session of Congress held after an election, but before the start of a new Congress.In Oregon, duck talk is serious business. So what exactly is a lame-duck session of Congress?

The expression dates back, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), to 18th Century Britain, referring to bankrupt businessmen, impaired "like a game bird injured by a shot."

The term evolved to include elected officials who announced they wouldn't or couldn't seek re-election. Lame-duck also refers to a session of Congress held after an election, but before the start of a new Congress. Many of the House and Senate members, include those who lost re-election bids, are considered lame ducks.

Since 1935, CRS says there have been 18 lame-duck sessions of Congress. But they have become more routine in recent times – including in seven consecutive Congresses.

All the normal procedural rules still apply, but there is a narrow scheduling window in a lame-duck session. Stiff objections or, in the Senate, filibusters, can derail legislation, as was the case this week with the defeat of repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Rule in the Senate. Congress also may "run out of time" to ratify the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia or confirm judges, including two Oregonians nominated for the federal bench.

The tax deal negotiated between Congressional Republicans and President Obama is expected to consume a lot of House and Senate floor time, not to mention the press release printer and talk show circuit. The compromise, which has raised the ire of many Democrats who campaigned against tax breaks for the wealthy, also includes an extension of unemployment benefits and a short-term reduction in Social Security payroll taxes for employees – proposals that may have fallen prey to the "no time" argument.

In the lame-duck session, Congress is likely to approve an omnibus spending bill that keeps the federal government chugging along. Expect a fight on that bill over earmarks.

The good news is the lame-duck session should be over when the Oregon Ducks take the field January 10 in Glendale, Arizona in the BCS National Championship game.