With the ratification of the Constitution, the outgoing Congress under the Articles of Confederation sets March 4, 1789, as the date on which the new federal government will begin. The House of Representatives is unable to establish a quorum to conduct business until April 1, and the Senate does not get its first quorum until April 6. George Washington is inaugurated as the first President on April 30,1789.
The Constitution provides that the Congress will begin each session on the first Monday in December. The first session of each two-year Congress therefore begins thirteen months after the congressional elections are held. The second session begins a month after the next election, and continues until March 3. Some of the members who serve during that second session might have been defeated or chosen not to run for reelection in the last election. They are known as “lame ducks,” and any session held after an election is a “lame duck session.”
Congress passes the Presidential Succession Act, which provides that should both the President and Vice President be unable to serve, the president pro tempore of the Senate (selected to preside over the Senate when the Vice President is absent) will serve as President. Next in line of succession are the Speaker of the House of Representatives, followed by the members of the cabinet in the order in which departments were created.
William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia within a month of becoming President. Vice President John Tyler then assumes the Presidency. Some members of Congress refer to Tyler as the “acting President,” and suggest that a special election should be held to fill the post. However, Tyler claims the full rights of the Presidency and serves out all of the nearly four years remaining in Harrison’s term.
In 1886, Congress passes a new Presidential Succession Act that removes the president pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives from the line of succession. After 1886, cabinet officers, in the order their departments were created, are next in line for the Presidency. In 1948, Congress reinstates the Speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate in that order in the line of succession.
The Twentieth Amendment is ratified in 1933, but not in time to change the date of the inauguration. As a result there is a five-month interval between Roosevelt’s election in November 1932 and his inauguration in March. The economy slips to the lowest level of the depression, with widespread bank failures, foreclosures, and unemployment. Neither the outgoing President Herbert Hoover nor the incoming President Roosevelt feels he has authority to confront those issues during the interregnum.
Under the Twentieth Amendment, the Seventy-fourth Congress, elected in November 1934, meets in January 1935, rather than waiting until the following December, as had been the previous practice. As a result, the outgoing Seventy-third Congress has no “lame duck session.” In later years, Congress only rarely holds lame duck sessions.
President Roosevelt’s first term, which began on March 4, 1933, ends at noon on January 20, 1937, when he becomes the first President to be inaugurated under the Twentieth Amendment.
Europe goes to war in September 1939, and, while the United States struggles to remain out of the war, the constant threat of hostilities keeps Congress in session throughout 1940, even during the months after the November election. This is the first lame duck session held after the Twentieth Amendment was ratified. Congress also holds lame duck sessions in 1942 and 1944, while the United States is engaged in World War II.
The Senate returns in a lame duck session following the election of 1954 to consider the censure of Joseph R. McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican accused of conduct unbecoming a senator. McCarthy gained national publicity for his controversial hearings into Communist subversion of the government and assailed anyone who criticized his tactics, including other senators. In a lame duck session in December 1954, the Senate votes 67 to 22 to condemn McCarthy’s conduct.
After the elections in November 1982 the House of Representatives returns to a lame duck session to deal with unresolved budget and appropriations issues. The session is so frustrating and unproductive that House Speaker Tip O’Neill vows never to hold another lame duck session while he is in office. He keeps his word, but after O’Neill retires Congress resumes occasional lame duck sessions to wrap up unfinished work.
With President Bill Clinton being investigated for lying to a grand jury about his relationship with a White House intern, Republicans in the House of Representatives move toward voting to impeach the President prior to the 1998 election. House Speaker Newt Gingrich predicts that his party will increase its numbers in the House in 1998, but instead the party loses seats and Gingrich resigns. Despite polls showing that public opposes impeachment, a lame duck session of the House votes almost entirely along party lines to impeach the President. Clinton is acquitted in a Senate trial the next year.