In most countries, power changes instantly after an election. The winners take it, and the losers cede it. That’s not the case in the United States. Instead, because we have a presidential system where executive officials hold discrete terms and the legislative branch is never dissolved — as it is in most parliamentary systems — there is a lengthy period after a federal election occurs before the winners are seated.
In fact, in the United States, a new Congress isn’t seated until two months after Election Day, and the president remains in office for 10 long weeks. This means bills can still be passed, judges can still be confirmed, and executive actions can still be undertaken by politicians who have been rejected by the voters at the polls. If Joe Biden wins in November and Democrats retake the Senate, Mitch McConnell will still be calling the shots on Capitol Hill for two more months and Trump will remain president, in charge of the same apparatus of state he’s repeatedly turned toward his own self-interested ends. Here’s how that could go haywire.
What exactly is a lame-duck session?
First, some background: A lame-duck session of Congress is any time that the legislative branch meets after the November election and before January 3, when the new Congress is seated under the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. That’s right — congressional seats turn over nearly a full three weeks before a new president takes office. The president, meanwhile, gets ready to turn power over to his successor through an elaborate transition process that involves hundreds of staffers to ensure that the intricate machinery of government continues without issues.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the term “lame duck” comes from 18th-century Great Britain, where it was applied to bankrupt business people who were likened to wounded waterfowl. The term was eventually extended by the 1830s to elected officials with a limited and discrete tenure in office remaining.