Members of the outgoing Congress still have more than a month to do some damage — or some good — before they yield the floor in January to the Congress elected earlier this month. In an issue brief for the Heritage Foundation, Hans von Spakovsky reminds readers that so-called “lame duck” sessions of Congress have become increasingly substantive in recent years.

Since the Twentieth Amendment, which specified that the terms of Members of Congress begin and end on January 3 of odd-numbered years, took effect in 1935,[6] there have been 19 lame duck sessions including most recently in 2012 during the 112th Congress.[7] Many of these lame duck sessions have been pro forma with no important business taken up. On the other hand, lame duck sessions have also dealt with matters vital to the republic when events have intervened. Lame duck sessions occurred frequently during World War II and the Korean War between 1940 and 1954 (six sessions). It was during the 1942 lame duck session that Congress passed a military draft for 18-year-old and 19-year-old men. …

… There was a 12-year gap from 1956 to 1968 with no lame duck sessions and only six such sessions in the next 30 years. In 1994, the modern era of almost constant lame duck sessions began.[10] The number of actual days in the lame duck sessions has also varied greatly, from only one day in 1948 to as many as 48 calendar days when both houses were in session in 1970.[11]

Prior to the past two decades, with the exception of times when the United States was facing great adversity or participating in armed conflict, lame duck sessions were both rare and inconsequential. Legislators seemed to understand—as did the public—that having legislators who had been turned out of office and were no longer accountable to voters make decisions on appropriations, nominations, and other substantive matters was both undemocratic and dangerous. Not only do constituents lose their ability to influence such legislators after an election, but congressional leadership often puts off votes on important legislation for the very purpose of avoiding having legislators in tough re-election campaigns vote on controversial matters before the election. This strategic decision is directly intended to help legislators avoid having to take responsibility for their actions when voters can call them to account on Election Day.

By scheduling matters such as appropriations acts during a lame duck session, congressional leadership can make such bills “must pass” legislation to avoid a government shutdown or the cutting of government services that could endanger national security. This also allows all types of earmarks and pork barrel spending projects to be attached to these must-pass bills, increasing the unaccountability of Members of Congress.