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The Awkward Interval
Our antiquated elective system gives an outgoing President or congressman egregious opportunity for farewells—and mischief
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
In the next fifty years, political and technological developments steadily made for earlier decisions and thus left an ever-lengthening gap until March 4. By 1836, moreover, the tightening of party discipline and the invention of the national nominating convention left the electors little practical alternative to voting automatically for their party’s nominee, and legislation in most of the states assured that all of a state’s electoral votes would go to the popular winner. Before the telegraph, a few days were required to get a reasonably accurate count of the popular vote in each state, and a few more days for reports from the states to reach Washington; but even so, a conclusive result was usually known in mid-November, nearly three months before the formality of counting the electoral vote in Congress. By the 1850’s, telegraph service had sped up the vote reporting so that the identity of the President-elect was known within twenty-four hours after the popular voting was over. At the same time, the spread of railroad service made it possible for a congressman or President-elect to get to Washington from anywhere except the far West in a week. The necessity for Congress to resolve the disputed Tilden-Hayes election of 1876 was a reminder that there were contingencies for which time and constitutional processes must be provided. Even so, it was hard to justify sixteen weeks for a sequence of events that under most circumstances coidd be gotten through in a fortnight or less.
Of course, the rules governing the scheduling of sessions of Congress made even less sense. The Constitution provided for annual sessions beginning early in December; these ended March 3 in the odd-numbered years, sometime in early summer in the even-numbered years. However, Congress was on a cycle of two-year terms beginning March 4 in odd-numbered years, dating from when the government was organized under the Constitution. Consequently, although members of the House were elected in November of even-numbered years, their predecessors’ terms did not expire until the subsequent March 3. Unless there was a special session, a newly elected member would not take his seat for thirteen months—until December of the year following his election. His first or “long session” ran from December of the odd-numbered year until summer of the even-numbered year. That fall there would be a new election. After the election the member, whether re-elected or not, would return for the “short session” until March; if he had been defeated at the polls, he was a “lame duck.” (The term seems to have originally been used in the eighteenth century to denote a stock market speculator who got caught short; by the time of the Civil War it had migrated to the lexicon of politics.)
In the early years of the Republic there may have been sufficient reason why congressmen elected in November could not take their seats a month later. Men of substance were not accustomed to setting off on short notice for stays of several months’ duration, and, as we have seen, three weeks or longer might have been required just for the travel from some of the southern or western states. But as transportation improved, the spectacle of defeated or retiring politicians sitting in Congress while men with fresh mandates remained at home seemed increasingly anomalous. In addition to being politically obsolescent, the Congresses of the short sessions often displayed behavior that ranged from irresponsibility to venality, as representatives who had been retired by their constituents sought to salvage something financial or political from the wreckage, or at least to enjoy a last fling in Washington.
“Lame duck” thus acquired an increasingly disdainful connotation. Each time there was a change in the White House the country was governed for four months by a superseded President and—in part at least—by a lame-duck Congress. It was an awkward time at best. Presidents retiring after the customary limit of two terms, or even those who were retiring voluntarily after one, usually managed to survive the interval with reasonable dignity, although they found that there was little they could do, or that anybody wanted them to do, except say farewell. A President who sought re-election and failed, however, was not only lame but (to borrow the Biblical expression) halt. Having been repudiated, he found his influence almost nil; and even if he managed to get a few things done, alone or in conjunction with Congress, neither the country nor the new President was likely to thank him. Presidential lame ducks may not have been as irresponsible as their congressional counterparts, but they have been even more pathetic.