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Washington Week

October 3, 2010 - 6:00pm

Congress left town last week only to reconvene after the November elections. However, unlike most Congresses, this year the American public will get twice the work out of its retiring or defeated members of Congress.

You see, the speaker of the House along with the Senate majority leader have scheduled the Congress to return to D.C. in a lame-duck session beginning Nov. 15. That session will continue to debate and vote on legislation until just before the national Thanksgiving holiday. Congress will come back again for phase II of this lame-duck session on Monday, Nov. 29 and could stay in session close to the Christmas holiday.

The members of these lame-duck sessions of Congress consist of defeated or retiring members of Congress, with all of the rights and responsibilities of those members who will serve in the next Congress, which convenes in January 2011. These lame-duck members of Congress have been described in the past as moral hazards or free agents.

With these tag lines in mind, it isnt hard to see why the Constitution was amended in 1933. The 20th Amendment was passed to avoid these circumstances where members of Congress can affect policy for years to come when in fact they were chosen by their constituents to no longer represent them in D.C.

Prior to 1933, Congress met on the predetermined date of the first Monday in December, pursuant to Article 1, Section 4 of our Constitution. However, with the passage of the Apportionment Act of 1872 -- which said that federal elections be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November -- when Congress convened in December, it consisted of these free agents or lame-duck members of Congress. Before the change in 1933, many of these lame-duck sessions contained an average of 30 percent of these lame-duck members, and in some Congresses they represented a majority of the membership. Fraud and lackluster attendance became the norm. Thus, the change in 1933.

Congresses that met from 1935 to 1992 had to meet in lame-duck sessions of Congress 10 times for primarily war issues, the censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and budget/spending bills. However, if you look at the Congresses from 1993 to 2008 you find that Congress met in seven separate lame-duck sessions. These modern-day lame-duck sessions seem to result from heavy workloads and help serve as political cover for those members of Congress who dont want to take unpopular votes before their elections.

This Washington Week column will next focus on the legislative items this Congress wants to tackle during the two-stage lame-duck session.Stay tuned and you be the judge as to the motives of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid when it comes to their double your pleasure -- double your fun scheduled November lame-duck session.


Elizabeth B. Letchworth is a retired, four-times-elected United States Senate Secretary for the Majority and Minority. She is the founder of

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