Posted on February 6, 2016
One thing that the United States has been pretty good at, all these years, is the peaceful transition of power. As I read and write about world history, and even world current events, there has been so much “and then so-and-so's army killed the ruler, and so-and-so became the new ruler” or other violent stuff like that. No matter how vicious political speeches and ads are, at times (and I don't like a dirty campaign!) - at least there hasn't been much mayhem and death as a
Democratic-Republican took over from a Federalist, or a Whig took over from a Democrat, or whatever.
The Founders knew that a smooth, peaceful transition of power would take time, so there was time built in. Too much time, it turns out! There used to be five months for the newly elected president to choose a cabinet and get up to speed on security issues and physically move to Washington. (If you think about how slow transportation and communication was, back then, that makes sense.) But remember, in all that time, the old president was busy governing the nation – and doing who-knows-what, now that he knows for sure he'll soon be out of a job.
A president who knows that he will soon be out of the president-ing biz is called a “lame duck.” That term comes from England in the 1600s, when “lame ducks” was a nickname for stockbrokers who could not pay off their debts. There are also lame duck Senators and Representatives. Indeed, ANY person holding a political office could be considered a lame duck if he or she:
(1) tried for re-election, but lost the election,
(2) chose not to run for re-election,
(3) was not allowed to run for re-election, because of a “term limit,”
(4) was not allowed to run for re-election, because the office held was eliminated.
Because U.S. presidents are not allowed any more than two 4-year terms, President Obama cannot run for re-election again in November of this year. So he can be considered a lame duck president. But, remember, lame-duckness happens to all presidents, sooner or later (unless something tragic happens and they die in office).
The humorist Will Rogers once warned that lame duck officials can be dangerous to the nation. He said, “An awful lot of people are confused as to just what is meant by a lame duck Congress. It’s like where some fellows worked for you and their work wasn’t satisfactory and you let ’em out, but after you fired ’em, you let ’em stay long enough so they could burn your house down.”
In the modern era, with rapid transportation and instant communication, a new president doesn't need 5 months to put together a team, get up to speed on issues, and move to Washington. And in 1933, lawmakers passed and states ratified the 20th Amendment to the Constitution to make the transition period shorter: just 2 months.
Today has been dubbed Lame Duck Day so that we can ponder the good aspects of having a transitional period but also the possible problems of lame duck officials making decisions without them being held accountable by voters. It's possible that someday there will be another change to prevent lame-duck Congress sessions passing a flurry of unwanted laws that make the folks on the way out the door rich!
By the way, apparently today is Lame Duck Day because, although the 20th “Lame Duck” Amendment was ratified in January of 1933, it was February 6, 1933, that the U.S. Secretary of State proclaimed the amendment.
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