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Lame Duck 101: An Overview of the Post-Election Congressional Session

Cite as "AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 06103164 (posted Oct. 31, 2006)"

Since the 109th Congress is headed towards a post-election session, this is a good opportunity to review the definition of a "lame duck" session. A "lame duck" session of Congress occurs whenever one Congress meets after the election of its successor has taken place, but before the succeeding new Congress begins. The members in the lame duck session, therefore, are the sitting members of the existing Congress, not the members-elect of the new Congress.

Congress has held a total of 15 lame duck sessions from 1940 through 2004. Congress has typically reconvened in mid-November and adjourned before Christmas, so that the lame duck session lasted about a month. Some sessions were not particularly productive, often because of political disputes and the difficulties of reaching legislative decisions in a post-election environment. In such cases (e.g., 1944, 1982, 2004), lame duck Congresses have deferred major matters to the succeeding Congress, especially when the party in power looked forward to a stronger majority in the new Congress. If one or both Houses of Congress change majority parties this year, we could again see a short lame duck session where members defer matters to the succeeding Congress.

The major task of most lame duck sessions in recent years has been to complete action on appropriations and the budget, since these bills must be enacted each fiscal year to fund government operations. During the 107th Congress in 2002, the lame duck session began on November 12th with two priorities: finish work on 11 appropriations bills and consider creation of DHS. While the DHS measure was completed (the House had already completed its work on the measure during that summer), Congress was unable to resolve its appropriations differences and ultimately had to pass a continuing resolution (CR). This CR funded the government at FY2002 levels through January 11, 2003, leaving the appropriations work to be done by the 108th Congress. The Defense Appropriations bill and Military Construction Appropriations bill were the only appropriations measures completed by Congress in 2002. During the 108th Congress, in 2004, Congress cleared four bills prior to the election and ended up wrapping the remaining nine into an "omnibus" measure that was attached to the FY2005 foreign operations spending law that was cleared Dec. 8, 2004.

This year's outlook on appropriations work during the lame duck session has many of the hallmarks of previous years. Of the 11 appropriations measures, only 2 have been signed into law. Appropriators would like to pass their bills separately, but the timeframe may be too short, leaving two main options, an omnibus or a CR into January. The election outcome will determine how Republican leaders will attempt to handle the remaining bills when lawmakers reconvene the week of Nov. 13th.

 
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