Lame ducks don't always operate in the shadows of a fading spotlight. In December 1980, Jimmy Carter -- having lost his bid for a second term and taken the Democratic Senate down with him -- knew that the incoming Reagan Republicans would have little regard for new environmental regulations. Carter and congressional Democrats quickly passed the "Superfund" environmental law, which allowed for the cleanup of toxic waste, and the Alaska Lands Act, which safeguarded millions of acres of terrain. (Clinton also got the conservation bug toward his presidency's end, signing executive orders that protected federal lands.)
Bush, too, is less passive than he seems. His political staff in the bureaucracy is quietly advancing a conservative agenda. The White House recently proposed a radical change to the Endangered Species Act that would allow government agencies to bypass a heretofore mandatory scientific review process that evaluates the impact of their actions. The Department of Health and Human Services drafted a new rule that could redefine abortion to include some forms of contraception and allow doctors and pharmacists to deny them to women as they see fit. And the Education Department has been plunging ahead with a plan to force colleges and universities to submit to standardized assessments that could do for higher education what the No Child Left Behind Act has done for secondary schooling.