Who are you calling a lame duck?

Posted at 11:17 AM, Dec 12, 2014

Could the term "lame duck" be a misnomer? 

It may conjure up images of legislators with one foot out the door and nothing but the holiday vacation on their minds, but that's not always the case. Several of Congress' legislative milestones, including Sen. Joseph McCarthy's censure, the Clinton impeachment and the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," happened during the short sessions convened between the November election and the start of the new term in January. 

Here are a few lame-duck highlights: 

Source:Congressional Research Service

Drew DeSilver over at the Pew Research Center's Fact Tank ran some numbers on lame-duck sessions, and found that not only have they become more common thanks to political polarization (the past nine Congresses have come back for lame duck sessions), but a larger share of Congress's total output gets passed during these sessions. 

Since 1973, the average Congress has passed about 18 percent of its laws during lame-duck sessions. The 2011-12 Congress passed just over 30 percent of its laws during the lame-duck session, which also was the longest since 1970 for both the House and the Senate. The chart below shows what percentage of each Congress' total legislative output took place during lame-duck sessions. 

Share of total laws passed during lame-duck sessionsSource: Pew Research Center05152535%LegendItem1973-’74’79-’80’81-’82’93-’94’97-’98‘99-’00’01-’02’03-’04’05-’06’07-’08’09-’10’11-’12

If recent years are any indication, lame-duck sessions, once a political rarity, look like they're here to stay. And if they keep passing substantial pieces of legislation, does that mean a name change is in order? What do you think we should start calling these extra sessions? Hit us up on Twitter @DecodeDC or post your suggestion in the comments.

Oh, and in case you're curious about where the term "lame duck" came from in the first place, @MirandacGreen has got you covered. Check out this video from our Decode Dictionary series: 

Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at