Today I’m continuing my ongoing series on the Amendments to the United States Constitution. While certainly not my most popular set of posts, it has been helpful and interesting for me as an historian and citizen to walk through each of them over the past number of months.
Today we turn our attention to the Twentieth Amendment, which reads (in part) as follows:
The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3rd day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.
Hidden in this brief discussion of dates was an important change in the way the government operated. Previous to the passage of this amendment, incoming Presidents (and Congresses) who had been elected in one year would not be seated until 4 March of the next year; the new Congress itself would not be required to meet until the following December. For Presidents this meant a mandatory four-month waiting period between election and inauguration. For Congress this could mean up to thirteen months of inaction.
During the early days of the Republic and in unremarkable times, such delays–though annoying–were not that troubling. In moments of crisis, however, they could be near catastrophic. In 1860, Lincoln’s November election occasioned the beginning of the South’s secession. Unfortunately, he had no power to do anything about it until 4 March of the next year. Not very convenient. During the Great Depression our nation was in a different but no less severe crisis, and it was in the midst of this historical moment that the Twentieth Amendment was passed. After 1933, new Presidents and Congresses would not have to wait what seemed to be an inordinate amount of time before addressing the nation’s problems.
While I believe that a certain transition period is helpful between administrations, is it possible that–in the spirit of the Twentieth Amendment–there should now be even less time between incoming and outgoing administrations? In our fast-paced world, this might be something to consider. A lame duck is still a lame duck, no matter how short the time…and Presidents-elect without any power are not very presidential at all.