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What is a lame duck session?

The 113th Congress is in its final days. Its constitutionally mandated term of two years is nearly concluded. Currently, each new Congress begins on or about January 3 after a congressional election, and lasts for two years, which is divided into a first and second session. If a Congress meets after a congressional election, but prior to the beginning of a new Congress, it is called a lame duck session. Technically, the lame duck session is not a new session of Congress, but rather a continuation of the second session of the Congress. The current lame duck session is a continuation of the second session of the 113th Congress, which began in January 2014.

While historically rare, there have been lame duck sessions at the end of every Congress in recent times. Since 1933, when the current date for starting a new Congress was established by the 20th Amendment, there have been 20 lame duck sessions. Between 1933 and 1998, there were only 12 lame duck sessions during 34 Congresses. Since then, however, all eight Congresses, starting with the 106th Congress in 2000, have held lame duck sessions.

What happens during lame duck sessions?

Earlier in this period, these sessions were principally about extraordinary issues, like war or impeachment, but more recently, they have been dominated by budgetary issues. As Congress has become more divided politically, it has become more difficult for a majority in both chambers to resolve policy differences and pass legislation related to spending priorities during regular sessions of the Congress. Seven of the eight Congresses since the 106th Congress in 2000 have had to meet in lame duck sessions to pass some kind of spending provision to keep the government funded.

Under normal circumstances, spending provisions are passed in the form of appropriations bills. Currently, Congress divides spending for government funding into 12 appropriations bills, each dealing with different governmental functions, like defense and agriculture. However, ideological gridlock has made it nearly impossible for the parties to agree on these appropriations and pass them. Eventually, Congress must pass some kind of spending provision during its term or the government is forced to shut down due to lack of funding. In order to avoid this, Congress passes a continuing resolution that simply empowers the government to continue to spend funds sometime into the incoming Congress. This has occurred during the lame duck session of every Congress since 2000 except for the 112th Congress in 2012. The only reason the 112th Congress didn’t deal with this in the lame duck session is because they passed their continuing resolution prior to the start of the lame duck.

In addition, because Congress is in session during the lame duck, it can also conduct other business if it so chooses. For example, it can pass legislation and approve nominees for federal office. This is especially important because once a Congress is adjourned, all its unfinished work resets to zero, and must go through the entire process all over again in the new Congress to pass, including reintroduction of bills for consideration, hearings, and committee approvals. Congress can also use this last opportunity to vote on presidential nominees for federal offices, like ambassadors and agency heads. For example, the Senate has already confirmed numerous ambassadors during the current lame duck session.

During these lame duck sessions, both houses of Congress also vote on their leadership for the incoming Congress, like Speaker of the House and majority and minority party leaders. They also elect their committee chairmen. These votes do not occur within the context of legislative sessions but are business conducted by the newly elected members of Congress within their parties while they are gathered together in Washington. The majority parties in both the House and Senate also use this time to create their respective calendars for the incoming Congress. These calendars typically mirror each other, but not exactly, especially when the majority party is not the same in each chamber.

How does the ERLC engage with Congress?

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission engages with Congress during these lame duck sessions in the same way we do so during the rest of the year. However, given the urgency created by the loss of progress on bills when a Congress adjourns, we attempt to focus more energy on bills of interest to us that are far enough along in the process and have adequate bipartisan support to possibly pass. So, for example, we are asking members of Congress to pass the Second Chance Reauthorization Act in this lame duck session. This bill provides funding for both secular and religious groups that help men and women coming out of prison obtain the necessary skills and training they need to break the cycle of criminality in their lives. We believe these men and women should get every chance our country can provide to reclaim their lives.

Another important matter Congress should address is the protection of religious freedom around the world. The lame duck session provides the 113th Congress one last opportunity to approve a couple important priorities here. First, we are working to ensure the reauthorization of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). This quasi-federal commission monitors religious freedom around the world and provides crucial information and counsel to the government to help protect and secure religious freedom in such countries as China, Iraq, and Pakistan, for example. Without action by December 11, the Commission will be forced to shut down due to lack of approved funding. Second, we are asking Congress to approve the nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as the next U.S. Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. Rabbi Saperstein has a stellar reputation for unbiased advocacy for international religious freedom. He has bipartisan support in the Senate as well. You can read more about Rabbi Saperstein in this article.

We are also working to make sure pro-life protections are included in various appropriations bills. These protections, known as “riders,” are amendments added to the appropriations bills every year that prevent government agencies from spending federal money on activities that are contrary to a pro-life ethic. For example, the Hyde Amendment blocks the use of federal dollars for elective abortion, except in cases of rape, incest, or threats to the mother’s life. There are more than a dozen other riders that also address various aspects of the pro-life ethic. We believe government has a responsibility to protect the weakest and most vulnerable among us. The unborn certainly qualify.

Clearly, the lame duck session is a crucial part of the work of Congress. In fact, it provides a last opportunity for the Congress to fulfill its obligations under the Constitution and to those who elected its members. We are working to assist the members to finish well. We are also praying for them. The ideological differences that keep these elected men and women apart are at times insurmountable from a human perspective. But God is able to help where humans cannot. We ask that all God’s people join us in prayer for the 113th Congress as they finish their term. Their work matters.

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