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November 28, 08

NEWS / U.S. Elections Turn Elephants, Donkeys into Lame Ducks Lag between election, inauguration poses cha

By Ralph Dannheisser
Special Correspondent

Washington — How do you turn an elephant or a donkey into a lame duck? In U.S. government, you just defeat it in an election.

The elephant and the donkey have been, respectively, the symbols of the Republican and Democratic parties ever since cartoonist Thomas Nast popularized the images in the mid-19th century. “Lame duck” is the term for an elected official nearing the end of his time in office — especially one still exercising the powers of office after a successor has been elected.

All members of the U.S. House of Representatives and a third of the members of the U.S. Senate are elected every two years, and the president every four. All are elected in early November, but the winners do not take office until the following January. In the weeks between those dates, defeated or retiring officials continue making decisions for which they can no longer be held accountable at the polls.

When the presidency changes hands, especially when the incumbent and his successor are of different parties, questions can arise about leadership even though the current president retains legal control of the executive branch. Frequently, the outgoing president and his successor strive to effect a smooth transition of power.

And, even though members of Congress leave Washington before the November elections, they often resume their business after Election Day, returning for a “lame duck” session.

The Senate Web site explains that this occurs “when Congress (or either chamber) reconvenes in an even-numbered year following the November general elections to consider various items of business. … Some lawmakers who return for this session will not be in the next Congress. Hence, they are informally called ‘lame duck’ members participating in a ‘lame duck’ session.”

These sessions rarely produce substantive legislation. In 2008, congressional leaders were unable to craft broad measures to deal with the nation’s economic crisis in a brief November session, managing only to pass a bill that extends the duration of unemployment benefits paid to U.S. workers.

Congressional leaders are considering reconvening in December to pass more legislation, including a measure to help the struggling U.S. auto industry. But for now the Senate’s assistant majority leader, Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin, has pronounced the process to be at an impasse.


Writing in the November 21 issue of The New York Times, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman decried what he termed the emergence of a power vacuum in the government at the height of a financial crisis, similar to what he said occurred in the period before President Franklin Roosevelt took office in the midst of the Depression.

“The interregnum of 1932-1933, the long stretch between the election and the actual transfer of power, was disastrous for the U.S. economy,” Krugman wrote. This was “at least in part because the outgoing administration had no credibility, the incoming administration had no authority and the ideological chasm between the two sides was too great to allow concerted action. And the same thing is happening now,” he said.

“Nothing is happening on the policy front that is remotely commensurate with the scale of the economic crisis. And it’s scary to think how much more can go wrong before Inauguration Day,” Krugman concluded.

Despite the problems inherent in the delay between election and inauguration, however, some such gap is needed to give the incoming president time to select and assemble key officials to serve in his administration.

The present November-January “lame duck” period actually reflects an improvement from the situation that was in effect until the 1930s: The Constitution provided for the same November election date as at present, but left a gap of about four months before a March 4 presidential inauguration.

Responding to the needs of a faster-paced modern society, Congress passed in 1932, and sufficient states ratified by January 23, 1933, the 20th amendment to the Constitution. It required the new Congress to assemble on January 3, and moved up the inauguration of the president to January 20.

The amendment took effect with the 1934 election for Congress and the 1936 presidential election.

The 22nd amendment, ratified in 1951, effectively added another route to a lame duck presidency: It limited future presidents to two elective terms in office. Some analysts suggest this limits the incumbent’s effectiveness for as long as his final two years in office.

The term “lame duck session” is applied to any post-election session of Congress even though most members are not lame ducks and will be returning the following year. In 2008, for example, only 17 out of 435 House members — 13 Republicans and four Democrats — lost their seats in the November 4 election. Three other Republicans had lost in party primaries, and 27 Republicans and six Democrats left voluntarily.

In the Senate, where 34 members out of 100 were up for election, four incumbent Republicans lost and four retired. Another Republican, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, faces a December runoff election, while Republican Norm Coleman of Minnesota is involved in a recount.

All told, that will leave about 475 current legislators returning in January 2009 to greet the new president.



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