Constitution Daily

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Shutdown, border wall highlight lame-duck session

November 12, 2018 by Scott Bomboy


On Tuesday, Congress starts its final or “lame duck” session to end the year, with several major issues to resolve before 2019 begins.

A lame-duck session happens when Congress meets after an election, when outgoing members still have voting powers to approve laws and take part in other votes.

The dynamic after last week’s election, with the Democrats reclaiming a House majority for the next Congress, will be much different than back in 2016. That lame-duck Congress saw the Republicans keeping the Senate and the House, as well as adding a Republican President, Donald Trump.

In the coming weeks, there could be leadership contests for both parties in the House, as Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy will likely see challengers within their caucuses.

Congress also must agree to fund the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies such as the Justice, State and Transportation departments and the National Park Service by December 8 to avoid a partial government shutdown. As many as 300,000 workers could be affected by such a move. President Trump has stated that any such deal must include adequate funding for his border-wall project.

Another factor in the funding and border wall debate could be a legislative solution to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA) program that could be linked to funding the border wall.

Also up for debate in the lame-duck session is a farm bill that might require an agreement on work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program food and nutritional benefits.

The modern lame-duck era started when the 20th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on January 23, 1933 and took effect in 1935. Before then, the congressional lame-duck session lasted from December 1st until March 4th. Today, the session period usually lasts from mid-November to the Christmas period in election years, but it can extend to January 2nd of the following year. On the following day, January 3, a new session begins and every other year it contains new members of Congress.

In the post-20th Amendment world, condensed lame-duck sessions haven’t lacked drama. In 1940, Congress met to decide how to address the threat of World War II. In 1950, Chinese troops entered the Korean War during a lame-duck session and Congress debated the use of nuclear weapons in the conflict. Four years later, the Senate met in a lame-duck session to consider censuring Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In 1974, Congress approved the nomination of Nelson Rockefeller as Vice President during a lame-duck session. After Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, the lame-duck Congress found a way in a bipartisan manner to pass budget resolutions that were delayed during the election year. And in 1998, a Republican-controlled House approved articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton.

Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.


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