Anyone or anything that's still in use, but has been superseded by the next version. The term is often applied to politicians after their successor is elected, but before the incumbent's term ends and he or she leaves office. For a sitting American President, this is the time between losing (or not contesting) a November election and the formal swearing-in of the President-elect the following January. Though still in power, the incumbent has no real mandate to legislate or take any long-term action.

The Lame Duck is another one of those Ragtime Animal Dances

There are at least two versions of the Lame Duck.

The first is a variation on the One Step, where you alternate a "down" step (flat-footed with the knee a little bent), with a an "up" step (on the ball of the foot with a straight leg). Thus the couple goes down-up-down-up and looks quite silly, and a little like a lame duck, or at least a lame person). Just about all One Step variations can be done with the Lame Duck variation.

The other is a variation on the Waltz or Hesitation Waltz. Done to 3/4 music, you take two steps in three beats, the first step taking two of the beats giving you a slow-quick-slow-quick rhythm. This does NOT have the ungainly down-up-down-up of the One Step variation; rather, it has a graceful sink and rise. A Waltz done with this Lame Duck variation is sometimes referred to as a Canter Waltz. Once you're doing this step, most of your waltz variations become impossible (since they're in 3) but most of your One Step and Fox Trot variations become possible.

Heard on NPR this morning: President-elect Barack Obama resigned his Illinois Senate seat yesterday, choosing to prepare for his transition to the White House rather than spend his time in a lame duck session of Congress.

Good for him, I thought. Almost nothing gets accomplished in lame duck sessions of anything, especially a lame duck session of Congress. This is actually a good thing, though, when you think about it. Recently defeated U.S. senators and representatives are likely to have some serious attitude issues, and are not the people you want to put in charge of the nation’s future. So the less accomplished, the better.

Best to coast the term out, and wait until the new crop of fresh-faced and eager legislators come into office. Right?

But as I thought about this story on my way into work, it occurred to me that I had no idea why it was called a “lame duck” session. Where on earth did such a phrase come from? What does it really mean, and why is it used today to describe "office-holders who have lost an election but have not yet left office?"

You might think that the origins of a phrase as well-known as “lame duck” would be well-documented, but you’d be wrong. The first use of the term I could find, at least as it applies to politicians, took place on January 14, 1763 in The Congressional Globe, a Capitol Hill newspaper, which stated that

In no event could it be justly obnoxious to the charge of being a receptacle of ‘lame ducks’ or broken down politicians.

Now, I’m not really sure what that particular sentence means, but it’s pretty clear that the terms “lame duck” and “broken down” were politically synonymous nearly 150 years ago.

The actual origin of the term apparently has nothing to do with politics, though. To the contrary, the phrase seems to have originated in the London Stock Market centuries ago, and refers to investors who were unable to pay their debts. In 1761, for example, Horace Walpole’s Letters to Sir Horace Mann includes the query:

Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck are?

In 1772, in the Edinburgh Advertiser:

Yesterday being the settling day for India stock, the bulls had a balance to pay to the bears to the amount of 23 per cent. Only one lame duck waddled out of the alley, and that for no greater a sum than 20,000.

The bull and the bear are obvious terms, still in use today. The lame duck, not so much, at least as related to Wall Street.

To quote the revered Marx Brothers, though, “Why a Duck?” There doesn’t seem to be much of an answer on this, although some commentators believe it can be traced back to cricket, otherwise known as English baseball.

When a cricket batman is out without scoring any runs, it seems, he is said to be “out for a duck,” with the zero on the scoreboard resembling a duck’s egg. In the United States, the term would probably be “goose egg,” but you get the idea. Anyway, the term first appeared in Selkirk's Guide to Cricket Grounds (1867), which described the breaking of a scoring drought

If he makes one run he has 'broken his duck's egg'.

Now, it might just be me, but it seems like there's something vaguely naughty about that phrase. You think?

In politics Lame Duck is slang for a politician, who by legal restriction, electoral defeat or voluntary (and public) decision will not return to high office. The term is most generally used to describe an American President late in his or her second term, whom the 22nd Amendment prevents from seeking re-election to a third term. Lame Duck as a term can be used to describe elected officials whose term in office is pre-determined. Although the official retains all powers officially provided by the constitution the official will suffer a slow and steady decline in real-world power as his or her term winds down.

The reason a lame duck's power declines is simple: they're going away! Politics is a contact sport, the mechanism by which disparate human beings resolve conflicting views about policy. So long as an elected official remains in power, he or she must be taken into account. Their support or opposition matters when when seeking legislation, or any other political matter within their purview. If you know President Gas is going to be in power for another four years, legislation must be made acceptable to him, or it probably will never become law. But if said President is leaving office in six months, it may be easier to wait out the term hoping for a more agreeable successor. At the end of his or her term, the President is almost irrelevant. The Chief Executive may propose and cajole all they wish, but the legislature (whose term will also expire) need only do nothing to kill any and all new initiatives.

A lame duck may matter more when both President and Congress are of the same political party, and have, or probably will be, voted out of office. In that case both legislature and President may be very active trying to pass legislation and executive decrees they know will not come to pass during the next term. They may be in an enormous hurry, but the opposition can and will use delaying tactics to block or undo many of these new initiatives. It's like at the end of a basketball game, where the clock is the friend of the team in front.

For this reason meaningful legislation is almost always passed during the beginning of a term of office. Only crisis or other external pressures lead dramatic action late during a term. The newly elected officials power is at its zenith. Popular officials, who retain the possibility and popularity required to return them to office retain their power throughout. Those who are leaving office lose power. Under other systems of government, this cycle of power peak and decline is not inherent. A popular politician in many systems can always call a new election, as Margaret Thatcher did shortly after Britain's victory in the conflict over the Falkland Islands (Malvinas). However no constitutional government is without its expiration date. Sooner or later popularity declines, and the party in power will end up as lame ducks.

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