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By the numbers: Lame duck sessions of Congress

If Congress and the president don't act during the 2012 lame duck session, the country could fall off the fiscal cliff.

Story highlights

  • 1830s - The term "lame duck" arrives in the United States
  • 1998 - The House votes to impeach President Bill Clinton during a lame-duck session
  • 2 - The number of times a lame duck House chose the president and vice president in disputed elections
  • 1982 - The lame duck session in which the House votes to give members a pay raise

This year's session, with fiscal cliff negotiations and lively nomination controversies, is anything but lame. But it's still a lame-duck Congress. Just how did a meeting of one Congress that occurs after a new one is elected but not yet sworn-in get that name?

We're slow roasting the answers to those questions and serving them up by the numbers:

What is a 'lame duck'?

18th Century - The term "lame duck" originates in Great Britain to describe a bankrupt businessman.

1830s - The term "lame duck" arrives in the United States, but is used to describe politicians on their way out of office, rather than businessmen.

85 - The number of current members of Congress who are lame ducks.


17 weeks - The length of time between November elections and inauguration on March 4th, prior to the 20th Amendment being ratified in 1933. This led to many problems, such as President-elect Abraham Lincoln being unable to deal with the secession of seven states during the long gap between his election and inauguration.

2 - The number of times a lame duck House of Representatives chose the president and vice president in disputed elections. This occurred in 1800 and 1824.

1932 - The year that humorist Will Rogers said: "An awful lot of people are confused as to just what is meant by a lame duck Congress. It's like where some fellows worked for you and their work wasn't satisfactory and you let 'em out, but after you fired 'em, you let 'em stay long enough so they could burn your house down."

The 20th Amendment

1923 - Senator George Norris of Nebraska proposes the 20th Amendment, moving the start date of Congress from March 4th to January 3rd. The Senate passes it 63-6.

1932 - After nine years of delays, the House also passes Norris' amendment, 336-56.

1933 - The 20th Amendment to the Constitution is ratified.

19 - Number of lame duck sessions of Congress since the ratification of the 20th Amendment. Prior to the ratification of the 20th Amendment, every second session of Congress from the first to the 73rd was technically a lame duck session.

10 - Number of these sessions from 1940 to 1992.

9 - Number of these sessions from 1994 to 2012. There was no lame duck session in 1996.

1 day - The shortest lame duck session, which took place on December 31, 1948.

58 days - The longest lame duck session, which took place in the Senate from November 7, 1940 to January 3, 1941.

Noteworthy lame duck sessions

1954 - The year the Senate holds a lame duck session to censure Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

1974 - Nelson Rockefeller is confirmed as vice president.

1982 - The House votes to give its members a retroactive pay raise. The lame duck session is especially contentious, leading Senator Edward Kennedy to say, "We have accomplished precisely nothing of any value." Representative Leon Panetta also remarked, "Frankly, we all look like fools."

1994 - Congress passes legislation on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

1998 - The House of Representatives holds a lame duck session and votes to impeach President Bill Clinton.

2002 - The Department of Homeland Security is established.

2010 - A compromise tax bill is passed, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is repealed, and a new START treaty with Russia is approved.