Americans borrowed the term “lame duck” from the British, who first applied the insult to bankrupt businessmen in the 18th century and then to 19th-century politicians whose time in office was quickly running out. Before the 20th Amendment was ratified in 1933, lame-duck presidents and congressmen served for long stretches after the election. New presidents weren’t inaugurated until March 4, a full four months after the election, and a new Congress often wouldn’t meet until 13 months after the election.
After the 20th Amendment, the lame duck period was greatly shortened, but that didn’t stop lame-duck politicians from packing their remaining weeks in office with last-minute pardons and acts of political sabotage.
James Buchanan Did Nothing to Stop Secession
When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November of 1860, slave-owning states led by South Carolina made clear their intentions to secede from the Union rather than make concessions with the incoming Republican administration. President James Buchanan, a lame duck with a Cabinet full of Southerners, chose to blame Lincoln and Northern abolitionists for the division over slavery rather than take a hard line against Southern secession.
In his December 1860 State of the Union Address, Buchanan said that “the antecedents of the President-elect have been sufficient to justify the fears of the South that he will attempt to invade their constitutional rights,” although Buchanan didn’t believe Lincoln would act so hastily. The greater blame for the secession crisis was, as Buchanan saw it, “the long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern states.”
After South Carolina and six other states formally seceded in December 1860 and January 1861, Buchanan was in a tough spot. He knew that secession was illegal, but he also believed that the Constitution barred him from sending in federal soldiers to quash the rebellion. When South Carolinian troops surrounded Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, Buchanan sent an unarmed vessel, the Star of the West, to provide reinforcements for the U.S. Army. But when the Star of the West was fired upon and blocked from entering the harbor, Buchanan folded.
“I don’t think that history is fair to Buchanan,” says Daniel Franklin, an associate professor emeritus of political science at Georgia State University and author of Pitiful Giants: Presidents in their Final Terms. “Like Hoover [when he faced the Great Depression], Buchanan was limited in his concept of what government could do. He didn’t conceive of the federal government having the power to stop the states.”
Benjamin Harrison Torpedoed the Economy to Punish Cleveland
After Benjamin Harrison squeaked out a narrow Electoral College victory against incumbent President Grover Cleveland in 1888, Harrison and his Republican backers in Congress rushed to add six new Western states to the Union and pack them with Republican loyalists. But instead of guaranteeing a Republican victory in the 1892 election, there was a backlash, with voters overwhelmingly sending Cleveland back to the White House and flipping Congress to the Democrats.
Harrison and the Republicans had campaigned on the threat that electing Cleveland and the Democrats would sink the U.S. economy, and now with only four months left in his lame-duck presidency, Harrison decided to torpedo the economy himself so it would appear to be Cleveland’s fault.
As historian Heather Cox Richardson explains, Republican-owned newspapers ran doomsday editorials to scare off foreign investment, while the U.S. Treasury burned through a surplus and refused to bail out Wall Street financiers. The result was a stock market crash with only eight days left before Cleveland’s inauguration.
The crash quickly devolved into the Panic of 1893, a severe economic depression that lasted until 1897. And as Harrison hoped, Cleveland largely took the blame.
A Lame-Duck Senate Censured Joseph McCarthy
In the anxious early days of the Cold War, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was an aggressive attack dog against what he believed was a communist infiltration of the U.S. government. In 1950, McCarthy claimed to have the names of 205 communists actively working in the U.S. State Department. Even when an investigation failed to produce any evidence, McCarthy stayed on the attack and capitalized on Cold War fears to accuse political foes of disloyalty.
In 1953, with a Republican president in the White House, McCarthy was named chairman of the Committee on Government Operations and its Subcommittee on Investigations. From this high-profile post, McCarthy launched more investigations to root out communist traitors, including a televised 1954 inquiry into the U.S. Army during which he badgered and berated a witness, Brigadier General Ralph W. Zwicker. To viewers at home, McCarthy’s performance was an outrage.
The Senate finally had enough, too. After the 1954 midterm congressional elections, the Senate convened a special lame duck session in order to consider 46 separate counts of misconduct against McCarthy. It was the first time only one chamber of Congress had returned for a lame duck session since the passing of the 20th Amendment.
McCarthy didn’t go down without a fight. He called the misconduct hearings a “lynch party” and labeled the committee in charge as the "unwitting handmaiden of the Communist Party." Ultimately, the Senate voted 67 to 22 to censure McCarthy on two counts, neither of which had to do with his years-long communist “witch hunt.” Instead, the Senate faulted McCarthy for his abuse of the very Senatorial committees that investigated him.
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McCarthy kept his job, but never recovered his political power. The senator died in 1957 at just 48 years old.
Congress Needed to Clean Up After the Watergate Mess
The 1974 lame duck session of Congress was the most productive in the history of the legislative body. Convened on November 18 and adjourned a month later on December 20, the lame-duck Congress passed 138 pieces of substantive legislation in law, including the Safe Drinking Water Act and a federal Privacy Act. But its most important work was to clean up after the Watergate scandal.
Topping the list of priorities during the lame duck session was to approve the nomination of Nelson Rockefeller as Gerald Ford’s vice president. Ford himself had only been named Richard Nixon’s vice president a year earlier when Spiro Agnew resigned over corruption charges. After Nixon resigned in disgrace over his involvement in Watergate on August 9, 1974, Ford was sworn in as president on the same day.
In a parting shot to Nixon, Congress also voted to nullify a prior agreement that would have allowed Nixon to retain ownership and control of his presidential tapes and papers. Those damning documents would remain in the government’s possession.
WATCH: 'Watergate' on HISTORY Vault
George H.W. Bush Pardoned Iran-Contra Planners
WATCH: What Was the Iran-Contra Affair?
One of the darkest stains on the two-term Republican administration of Ronald Reagan was the Iran-Contra Affair, a secretive plot to sell weapons to Iran and use the proceeds to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Reagan himself claimed no knowledge of the illegal scheme, but several members of his administration, including Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, were ultimately indicted and in some cases convicted of perjury and withholding evidence.
George H.W. Bush was Reagan’s vice president and also claimed ignorance of the Iran-Contra plot. After winning the presidency in 1988, Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. And on December 24, 1992, a lame-duck Bush pardoned six of the indicted or convicted Iran-Contra planners, none of whom saw a day in prison for their crimes.
A Lame Duck Session of Congress Impeached Bill Clinton
After taking unexpected losses in the 1998 midterm elections, Republicans convened a special lame-duck session of the House of Representatives to consider articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton. Clinton was accused of lying to Congress and obstructing the investigation into his scandalous affair with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.
The House convened on December 17, 1998 and voted two days later to impeach Clinton on two articles of impeachment: perjury and obstruction of justice. Clinton was the first president to be impeached in 130 years. During the Senate impeachment trial held in January 1999, Clinton was acquitted of both charges and served out the rest of his second term.
Bill Clinton Pardoned a Fugitive Billionaire
On Bill Clinton’s very last day in office before handing the White House over to George W. Bush in 2001, Clinton issued 140 presidential pardons and 36 commutations. While it’s expected that lame-duck presidents will issue a glut of pardons on their way out the door, one of Clinton’s pardons drew the ire of both Republicans and Democrats.
Marc Rich was a convicted tax fraud who fled to Switzerland in the 1980s to avoid jail time and eventually landed on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. Rich was also a generous contributor to both political parties, and a philanthropist in Israel and Iran. Although Clinton swore there was no quid pro quo involved in the last-minute pardon of the “fugitive financier,” Clinton’s critics and even some allies were furious.
“It was a terrible pardon,” said Democratic Senator Pat Leahy. “It was inexcusable. It was outrageous…Here was a man [Rich] who was involved in a huge swindle and has shown absolutely no remorse.”
READ MORE: 7 Famous Presidential Pardons