It’s not a hunting term. Nor is it a cooking experiment gone wrong. It’s a phrase often bandied about after an election: the “lame duck,” or departing politician who returns to office for the remainder of his or her term after the November elections. It can be an awkward position, but one in which at least one woman Member found creative inspiration.
The term “lame duck” is British in origin, used as early as the late 18th-century to describe bankrupt businessmen. The phrase came into usage in the United States to describe defeated politicians as early as the 1830s—replacing a somewhat harsher term, “dead duck”—and now generally encompasses all departing Members. Respecting the travel difficulties to and from Congress’ meeting place in New York, the Continental Congress had set the start date for congressional sessions in the Constitution on March 4—several months after the traditional fall elections. Complaints about long “lame duck sessions,” which took place in the months between the election and the end of the term, led to the ratification of the 20th Amendment on January 23, 1933, which backed the new Congress’ start date up to January 3.
Just one week after this so-called “Lame Duck Amendment” was ratified, Representative Ruth Bryan Owen of Florida poked fun at her own predicament. Self-described as “the first Bryan who ran for anything and got it” (a glib reference to her father William Jennings Bryan's three failed attempts at winning the presidency), Owen lost the Republican nomination to her eastern Florida seat in June 1932. Her stance on Prohibition—she failed to “turn ‘wet’ fast enough”—had proven unpopular among her constituents. Owen wished to resign rather than remain a lame duck, but Speaker John N. Garner of Texas convinced her to stay on. In the meantime, Owen heeded her constituents—voting in favor of repealing the 18th Amendment—and faced nine months as a lame duck with characteristic good humor. As the 72nd Congress (1931–1933) drew closer to ending, she composed a comic poem, entitled “The Last Will and Testament of a Lame Duck,” and read it before a luncheon at the National Women's Press Club, on January 31, 1933. Her colleague Florence Kahn of California (who would, herself, become a lame duck four years later) read the poem into the Congressional Record later that day:
“To Members in the coming session,
We leave what's left of the depression;
With fifty thousand tomes appended
Telling just how it can be ended.
To Congressmen who'll draw our salary,
We leave all gunmen in the gallery;
All communists who march and fight,
And threaten us with dynamite.
Those stalwart ones may have the onus
Of laying hands upon the bonus.
The currency-to them we hand it,
To shrink, contract it, or expand it.
We'll let them exercise their talents,
On making that thar [sic] Budget balance;
And pointing out, with no delaying,
A tax the public won't mind paying.
To make this simple as can be,
We leave to them technocracy.
To them we're leaving the analysis
Of beer producing no paralysis;
To them we leave with stifled sobs,
All persons who are seeking jobs.
Our pangs of exile 'twill assuage
To know we have no patronage.
To you, dear ladies of the press,
We leave unfeign'd thankfulness;
All you have done to give us pleasure,
Are memories we will always treasure,
While we roam that vast expanse
Where lame ducks seek their sustenance.
When happy days are here again,
Please let us know just where and when!”
Owen facetiously bequeathed the next Congress the bustle and tumult on Capitol Hill that she and her colleagues had experienced in the early days of the Great Depression: the passage of the 21st Amendment (ending Prohibition), the passage of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), Glass-Steagall, and Revenue Acts—which, respectively, provided businesses secure loans, authorized Federal Reserve banks to use government bonds and securities as collateral for issued notes, and levied the largest peacetime tax percentage increase to date—the Bonus March, and a gunman in the House gallery.
And Owen certainly found her “happy days” outside of Congress’ early Depression commotion: she had a successful career as a diplomat.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 72nd Cong., 2nd sess. (31 January 1933): 3051; Stephen W. Stathis, Landmark Legislation 1774–2012, 2nd ed. (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, Inc., 2013); The Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “duck”; Donald C. Bacon, et al., The Encyclopedia of the United States Congress, vol. 3 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); John J. Patrick, et al., The Oxford Essential Guide to the U.S. Government (New York: Berkley Books, 200); Connecticut Herald, June 23, 1829; Ohio State Journal (Columbus), October 22, 1836.Follow @USHouseHistory