With the holidays looming, Congress is using its final weeks to try to approve a rush of major legislation.
It is known on Capitol Hill as the lame-duck session: the handful of weeks between Election Day and the end of the two-year congressional term, a period when lawmakers typically return to Washington to tie up loose ends.
For much of the 20th century, these stretches lived up to their name. Lame-duck sessions were frequently brief and perfunctory, if they occurred at all. But something changed over the past two decades. While the rest of the legislative year has generally gotten less productive, lame-duck sessions have become, well, less lame.
In the past dozen years, Congress has used the year-end window to rewrite criminal justice and tax policy, make a historic investment in medical research and pass a crucial Covid relief package. The period has also been the time for debates over federal spending, some of which have ended in shutdowns of the government.
The current Congress is shaping up to be an exemplar of the new model. Yesterday, senators gave final approval to an $858 billion defense policy bill. They also used a stopgap measure to buy themselves another week to negotiate what is expected to be a sprawling $1.7 trillion government spending and policy bill. Before that, the full Congress approved a watershed bill enshrining the marriage rights of same-sex couples in federal law.
The reasons for the recent shift have a lot to do with growing partisan polarization, congressional historians and analysts say. But essentially, the post-election weeks have become a unique political grace period for lawmakers leaving Congress to try to forge bipartisan compromises that eluded them in tenser times. And re-elected lawmakers may feel freer to act after securing another term.
“At this time of year, hope springs eternal that retiring members wanting to leave a legacy or other members simply wanting to demonstrate there was good will between the two parties might produce a productive lame-duck session,” said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers politics professor who studies Congress.
Today’s newsletter looks at the history of Congress’s post-election period and the potential to deliver in this one.
Centuries of lame ducks
The term “lame duck” dates to 18th-century England, when it was first used to describe bankrupt businessmen who were rendered impotent like a shot game bird. The term soon jumped to politics.
Americans have been calling retiring or defeated presidents and congressmen lame for much of their history. The lame-duck legislative session took on its modern form in the 1930s, after the 20th Amendment significantly shortened the period between Election Day and the start of the next Congress.
Reformers who championed the amendment hoped to end lame-duck legislating, said Donald Ritchie, a former Senate historian. They largely succeeded until World War II required year-round legislating. For decades after, Congress reconvened only intermittently to take pressing post-election actions, like censuring Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 and impeaching President Bill Clinton in 1998, or to resolve particular legislative debates.
Since 2000, though, the post-election period has increasingly become a supercharged fixture. The change corresponds with rising partisan acrimony, which has made regular policymaking harder and has often led Congress to put off more substantial work, including funding the government, until its final days.
“Everything is a fight to the finish,” said Ritchie. “No one wants to give an inch, so lots of things get delayed or punted until the end.”
The incentive to act is even more intense when, like this year, one party is on the verge of losing unified control of the House, Senate and White House. Arguably the most productive lame-duck session in recent memory came after the 2010 elections. Democrats lost the House and a nearly filibuster-proof Senate majority. With its control waning, the party led a repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay troops, passed tax cuts and a bill for Sept. 11 survivors and emergency responders, and approved a nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
This year’s agenda
The success of bipartisan negotiations in the ongoing lame-duck session will determine whether this is one of the most productive post-election periods in memory or just middling.
After the passage of the same-sex marriage and defense bills, other major legislative items remain pending, including additional aid to Ukraine and a bipartisan overhaul of the election law that Donald Trump tried to exploit on Jan. 6, 2021, to overturn his 2020 defeat.
With Republicans vowing to shut down the committee investigating Jan. 6, the panel plans to issue a final report next week and vote on whether to refer its findings to the Justice Department for potential criminal prosecutions.
Like other lame-duck Congresses, this one has left the task of approving funding for government programs, including the National Institutes of Health and the military, until the very last minute. If lawmakers ultimately fail to reach a spending deal, large parts of the government could shut down as soon as next week, or the whole fight could be pushed into the new year, when Republican control of the House will give the party greater leverage.
More Congress news
The defense bill that Congress passed repeals the military’s Covid vaccine mandate.
The House passed legislation that could let Puerto Rico become a state, but it’s unlikely to pass the Senate.
This congressional term has been strikingly functional, as David Leonhardt has written in this newsletter.
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More than a third of execution attempts in the U.S. this year were mishandled, researchers say.
A 50-foot-high aquarium with 1,500 tropical fish inside in a Berlin hotel spectacularly collapsed.
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SPORTS NEWS FROM THE ATHLETIC
Yankees add a big arm: New York reeled in Carlos Rodón — the best free-agent left-handed starter on the market — with a six-year, $162 million contract.
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Defending champs: If France beats Argentina on Sunday, it’ll be the first team in 60 years to retain the crown. (Brazil did it in 1962.)
Schedule: There’s no match today. Croatia and Morocco play each other tomorrow at 10 a.m. Eastern for the third place. The final is on Sunday at 10 a.m.
When the games are over: Hundreds of thousands of migrants built Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure. What will happen to them? Watch The Times’s video.
ARTS AND IDEAS
Faces in the news
If you’re a regular reader of The Morning, you probably have a good sense of what happened in 2022. You’ll remember, for instance, that the Supreme Court swore in a new justice, that a British prime minister spent less than two months in office and that a Yankees slugger broke the team’s storied home run record.
But do you know what they look like? Our newsletter team has created a game to test your knowledge of the faces that defined 2022. We’ll show you a face; you tell us a name. (To help you out, we’ve added hints this year.) After you’re done, you can see how well you did compared with other Times readers.
Take The Morning’s 2022 Faces Quiz.
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Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow.
P.S. This Sunday’s print edition of The Times will include Puzzle Mania, an annual special section.
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Matthew Cullen, Lauren Hard, Lauren Jackson, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.