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.