Time to Make Lame Ducks Extinct?

If they measured by weight, the current lame-duck session of Congress would be the fattest bird in the history of post-election lawmaking.

In terms of the tonnage of legislation considered, laws passed and money spent, none of the 17 pervious lame-duck sessions can match the current meeting of Congress.

There have been bigger single events (the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998) and longer laundry lists (the 1980 lame duck saw vast piles of legislation pushed through as Democrats were being pushed out), but this year's session, a sort of super duck, is something different.

The business jammed into the past six weeks includes urgent measures like forestalling a huge, across-the-board tax increase and providing funding to keep the government operating. But it has also included several pieces of legislation that might have been taken up any time, like allowing gay members of the military to express their sexualities, a limited amnesty program for illegal immigrants who came to America as children and even a missile treaty with Russia.

Certainly, past lame ducks have seen outgoing parties try to shove through their legislative wish lists. Others have been called to deal with urgent, unfinished business. But the super duck has had lots of both.

A Congress that did next to nothing between completing work on President Obama's national health-care law in March until the election has been a blur of activity since reconvening in the second week of November.

During the lame duck, Congress has seen its approval rating fall to 13 percent, the lowest point recorded in 30 years of tracking by the Gallup organization. Americans voted for a big change in direction for Congress and instead have seen Washington going full steam ahead.

While the deal between President Obama and Republicans to keep tax rates the same won wide public approval, even that action prompted the question from voters: "What took you so long?"

Lame ducks as we know them weren't possible until 1935, when the 20th Amendment moved up the start date for a new Congress from March 4 to January 3. Prior to the change, Congress often worked during the four months between election and swearing in out of necessity. But since then, the action had been rare.

Four of the 17 sessions have been special wartime meetings, and most of the rest have been limited in scope and convened infrequently. There were none between 1954 and 1970 or between 1982 and 1994. Most involved must-pass legislation or were convened for a specific purpose, like passing the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) treaty in 1994 or censuring Red-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) in 1954.

But there has been a lame-duck session after every election since 1998. This seventh lame duck in a row is unprecedented for that reason too. The previous record for consecutive lame duck sessions was the string of three held during World War II. Republicans and Democrats alike have taken advantage of the chance to make law after voters have spoken, and what was once an extraordinary act has become the norm.

It's a precedent that seems to suit lawmakers, even if voters protest. Lame ducking allows politicians to hold off difficult or unpopular actions until they are beyond the grasp of voters for at least two years. And as they have become more common, lame duck sessions have become more ambitious and lawmakers less abashed about legislating without a mandate.

Perhaps here, America can take a lesson from our British cousins.

When there is a change of parties in Parliament, the switch happens at once. Traditionally, the day after an election that changes the majority, the old prime minister and his party are out and the new prime minister and his party are in.

Even in this spring's U.K. elections, which saw the surprising creation of a fusion government after a three-way split of the vote, the new government was in power just six days later.

The reason for the long time between American elections and oath taking was to accommodate travel in a large, mostly rural nation, not to give defeated members of Congress a chance to go out in a blaze of glory.

In 1935, when the 20th Amendment cut in half the time between election and taking office, the argument for the change was that trains, automobiles and telephones made it possible to get to Washington and set up a new government in less than four months.

The advances in transportation and communications in the past 75 years are perhaps as great as those in the 146 years before the 20th Amendment went into effect. Perhaps it's time for the law to reflect that.