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Just Ask Us: Where did the term ‘lame-duck’ originate and what is its meaning in politics?

December 17, 2018

Q: Where did the term ‘lame duck’ originate and what is its meaning in politics?

A: In U.S. politics, a lame duck refers to “an elected official or group continuing to hold political office during the period between the election and the inauguration of a successor,” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

In Wisconsin, lame-duck politics have generated much discussion in recent weeks, with GOP state legislators pushing for controversial legislation during a lame-duck session before Gov.-Elect Tony Evers takes office in January.

Gov. Scott Walker signed the measures, which weaken the power of Evers and incoming Attorney General Josh Kaul, on Friday.

The term originated in Britain in the 1800s as a way to describe bankrupt businessmen, according to the U.S. House of Representatives online archive and history website. It was first applied to American politics in the 1830s, when it was used to describe a defeated politician, replacing the term “dead duck.”

But lame-duck sessions have increasingly been used — by members of Congress, at least — to address controversial issues, according to a 2016 report from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Legislation, in most circumstances, passed during a lame-duck session “undermines representative government by weakening the accountability link between the American people and their elected representatives,” according to the Heritage Foundation report.

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