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Lame Ducks
Posted November 15, 2010 at 10:00am by Chronicler

The lame duck session of Congress is scheduled to meet soon to address business that it did not finish before the election.

Just what is a "lame duck"? Actually, the meaning of the word has shifted over time.

In the 18th and early 19th century, the term "lame duck" was used to denote a person who was destitute/fiscally irresponsible/swindler or a worthless bank note. A famous swindler in New York City named Rice disappeared in 1763 with £6,000 was described in the New York Mercury on 4/18/1763 as a "Lame Duck." Newspaper accounts of these economic "lame ducks" in the 18th century almost always speak of the fact that the person "waddles," possibly because his pockets were full of paper money that he was embezzling (e.g., the Charleston [SC] Evening Gazette, 7/14/1785). The newspaper the Massachusetts Spy reported on 6/15/1814 that "when a person declines to pay his [economic] loss, he is called a lame duck." The economic use of the term is found in the Cleveland Daily Herald on 7/27/1841 (bank note) and the New York Herald on 6/6/1858 (destitute person).

A search in the historic newspaper database determines that the first use of the term "lame duck" in politics came in 1859. In that year, President Buchanan appointed William D. Bishop the new Commissioner of Patents. Bishop had been a U.S. Representative from Connecticut, but he was defeated for re-election on 4/4/1859. The earliest political use of the term thus indicated a defeated member of Congress who needed a political appointment (rather than being forced to return to farming). [Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, 5/9/1859]

During the Civil War, President Lincoln said of another defeated member of the U.S. House that he had become a "lame duck" and would need to be provided with a political appointment. This use of the term was in vogue at the end of Reconstruction, when several former Republican Governors of Southern States were looking for appointments in western states (NYT 4/16/1881). A later article in the NYT on 3/2/1883 stated that President Arthur was expected to find offices for the recently defeated "lame duck" Republicans in the U.S. House. President McKinley appointed people as Commissioners for the St. Louis Exposition in 1901, and the NYT reported on 3/17/1901 that they were almost all "lame ducks."

The meaning of the term shifted during the Taft administration. At that time, as was the case until 1933, each Congress usually held two sessions, beginning near the end of each calendar year and running into the spring of the following year. After 1872, the second session was held after the election for the succeeding Congress. [This second session is what we call the "lame duck" session today.] Following the major Democratic gains in the 1910 midterm elections, a group of soon-to-be-retiring Republicans decided that they were going to vote as they felt best in the second session, regardless of what the party or the President desired. This group, led by Sen., Eugene Hale (R-ME) and Sen. Julius Burrows (R-MI), was called the "Lame Ducks" (NYT 2/15/1911). This meant that retiring members of Congress were voting as a block on bills - though some of these people had just been defeated for re-election.

Sentiment began to grow against "lame duck" members of the second session of Congress in the 1910s and 1920s. Sen. Thaddeus Caraway (D-AR) introduced a constitutional amendment in 1922 (NYT 12/6/1922) that would have restricted the types of bills that the lame ducks could vote on. President Harding shared in the sentiment, and in early 1923 he angered Senatorial lame ducks by saying that the second session of Congress was impotent (NYT 2/9/1923).

The phrase "lame duck session of Congress" emerged later in the 1920s as a result of efforts by Sen. George W. Norris (R-NE) to eliminate "lame ducks" from the second sessions. In 1923, Norris introduced a constitutional amendment that would adjust when Congress met, so that the new Congress would meet following elections (NYT 2/14/1923). It passed the Senate but not the House. In 1924, the two major parties discussed the Norris amendment at their National Conventions. Finally in 1926, the House Elections Committee approved the Norris amendment, and it was during the committee's deliberations that the second sessions of Congress were first called the "lame duck sessions." The term first appeared in the New York Times on 2/23/1926, but the paper did not say who coined the term.

Once the Norris amendment was passed during the Hoover administration, many Congresses have been held without a session following the elections to the succeeding Congress. Lame ducks sometimes do not always show up for these sessions (usually called the third sessions today). For the most part, the use of the term today applies to Congress as a whole and not to individuals. A retiring member may be a part of the "lame duck session," but it is increasingly rare to hear that a particular member is a "lame duck."


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