The possibility of lame duck sessions of Congress began in 1935, when the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution took effect. Under this amendment, ratified in 1933, regular sessions of Congress begin on January 3 of each year, unless Congress passes a law in the previous session changing the date. Also, the terms of members begin and end on January 3 of odd-numbered years. Under these arrangements, any meeting of Congress between election day in an even-numbered year and the following January 3 is considered a lame duck session.
Why lame duck sessions are bad
Lame duck sessions are never desirable. Defeated lame duck lawmakers, knowing they will not have jobs in the new Congress, either tend to "just go through the motions" while debating and voting on remaining important legislation or, in worse cases, attempt to hinder or even damage the lawmaking process. On the state level, the legislatures of only 11 states even allow lame duck sessions.
By far the most dismal scenario for a lame duck session is whenever one of the two major political parties has taken away majority control of one or both houses of Congress from the other party, as happened after the 2006 mid-term election, when the Democrats won control of both the House and Senate from the Republicans. In these instances, with political tempers already running hot, the temptation for lame duck members to vent their frustrations by working to stall good bills, while turning bad bills into worse laws, becomes even greater.
Why lame duck sessions happen
Once rare, lame duck sessions have become all too common. The final days of the 109th Congress in November and December of 2006 became the 16th lame duck session since 1940.
The typical "target" date for the annual adjournment of each session of Congress is during the first week in October. The target adjournment date has become a total myth in recent years. The first session of the 109th Congress, for example, did not achieve final adjournment until Dec. 22, 2005.
During far too many recent years, the main reason for lame duck sessions has been Congress' failure to complete its work on the spending, or "appropriations" bills that form the basis of the annual federal budget. By law, the federal budget process, including passage of the spending bills, begins the first Monday in February of each year and should be concluded by October 1st, the start of the federal government's Federal Fiscal Year. Failing to pass the spending bill by October 1, Congress is compelled to pass "continuing resolutions," legislation that allows the government operate temporarily without an approved budget at the previous year's spending levels.
Lame duck sessions: some bad, some not so bad
Some sessions are not particularly productive, often because of political disputes and the difficulties of reaching legislative decisions in a post-election environment. In 1982 and 2002, for example, Congress returned after the November election in part to complete work on most of the spending bills. In each case, it failed to do so and the new Congress had to enact large continuing resolutions to fund government operations for the fiscal year already in progress.
Other lame duck sessions, such as the one held in 1980, have been more productive. On that occasion, Congress approved budget resolution and reconciliation measures, five regular appropriations bills and a continuing resolution, an Alaska lands bill, a landmark environmental cleanup "superfund" bill, a measure extending revenue sharing, a revision of military pay and other benefits, and a bill changing the appointment power of the Senate President pro tempore.