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Twentieth Amendment

Twentieth Amendment

Section 1.

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 3d 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.

Section 2.

The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.

Section 3.

If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President. If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.

Section 4.

The Congress may by law provide for the case of death of any of the persons from whom the House of Representatives may choose a President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them, and for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the Senate may choose a Vice President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them.

Section 5.

Sections 1 and 2 shall take effect on the 15th day of October following the ratification of this article.

Section 6.

This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission.

To a great extent, the Twentieth Amendment was meant to simplify and clarify election procedures that had, by the twentieth century, become outdated. When the Constitution was first adopted, a new Congress needed plenty of time between an election (conducted in November) and the actual commencement of work. With rapid changes in transportation and communication in the twentieth century, however, election results are quickly known and legislators can travel from anywhere in the United States to the nation’s capital in a short amount of time. This amendment thus shortened the time between the election and the beginning of the congressional term.

Additionally, the amendment addressed the issue of presidential succession. An essential element of any democratic country is the peaceful and smooth transfer of power. The Twentieth Amendment, then, aimed at resolving the confusion that might arise if no presidential candidate in an election year received a majority of electoral votes. If this were to happen, the amendment specified that the old Congress, and not the newly- elected one, would choose the new president.

The Twentieth Amendment is often referred to as the “lame duck” amendment because of sections one and two, which move the presidential inauguration date from March 4 to January 20, move the start of the congressional term to January 3, and require Congress to meet at least once a year. Under the original terms of the Constitution, the terms of members of the House and one-third of the members of the Senate expired on the fourth day of March, which required the departing Congress to meet in a short session in which little was ever accomplished. Moving the date on which Congress convenes to January 3 was intended to give representatives plenty of time to address general legislation. In effect, the amendment ended the so-called short session of Congress.

Ratification Facts

Proposed:

Submitted by Congress to the states on March 2, 1932.

Ratification:

Ratified by the required three-fourths of states (36 of 48) on January 23, 1933, and by the remaining 12 states on April 26, 1933. Declared to be part of the Constitution on February 6, 1933.

Ratifying States:

Virginia, March 4, 1932; New York, March 11, 1932; Mississippi, March 16, 1932; Arkansas, March 17, 1932; Kentucky, March 17, 1932; New Jersey, March 21, 1932; South Carolina, March 25, 1932; Michigan, March 31, 1932; Maine, April 1, 1932; Rhode Island, April 14, 1932; Illinois, April 21, 1932; Louisiana, June 22, 1932; West Virginia, July 30, 1932; Pennsylvania, August 11, 1932; Indiana, August 15, 1932; Texas, September 7, 1932; Alabama, September 13, 1932; California, January 4, 1933; North Carolina, January 5, 1933; North Dakota, January 9, 1933; Minnesota, January 12, 1933; Arizona, January 13, 1933; Montana, January 13, 1933; Nebraska, January 13, 1933; Oklahoma, January 13, 1933; Kansas, January 16, 1933; Oregon, January 16, 1933; Delaware, January 19, 1933; Washington, January 19, 1933; Wyoming, January 19, 1933; Iowa, January 20, 1933; South Dakota, January 20, 1933; Tennessee, January 20, 1933; Idaho, January 21, 1933; New Mexico, January 21, 1933; Georgia, January 23, 1933; Missouri, January 23, 1933; Ohio, January 23, 1933; Utah, January 23, 1933.

Presidential Term Begins in January

Presidents, vice presidents, and other elected officials shiver through lengthy inaugural ceremonies in January. This date has nothing to do with weather and everything to do with providing for more effective government. The Twentieth Amendment moved the date of inauguration from a spring-like March 4 to a wintry January 20 in order to place elected officials more quickly into the offices for which they were selected. The amendment was ratified in 1933, took effect in 1937, and people have been braving the cold ever since.

The first presidential inauguration was actually held in a warmer month: April 30, 1789. Following the first inauguration, the date for a new president’s inauguration was set as March 4, and it remained there until 1937. In 1792, the year Congress set the March 4 date, the interval between the date of a November election and the commencement of service made perfect sense. Given the lack of modern means of communication and transportation, considerable time was needed for election results to be made public and for newly elected officials to make the journey to the nation’s capital.

With the Twentieth Amendment, however, the interval between the November election and the end of a president’s term in March was shortened. By moving the end date from March 4 to January 20 (January 3, in the case of Congress), proponents of the amendment hoped to end the “lame duck” syndrome (see sidebar). Thus, the Twentieth Amendment is often referred to as the “lame duck” amendment.

The “Lame Duck” Syndrome

Originating in the mid-1700s, the term “lame duck” applies to an elected official who has not been reelected but still holds office. For example, when presidents have already served their maximum two terms or are defeated in a bid for reelection, they nevertheless remain in office after the election in November, serving until the president-elect is inaugurated in January. This interval is the lame duck period. Early in U.S. history this lag between the election and the swearing-in of officials was almost a necessity given slow means of transportation and communication. In fact, once the November election was set, it was more than a year before newly elected Congressmen met in December.

Officials on their way out were often referred to as lame ducks because it was thought that they could accomplish very little between the election and the end of their terms. Given the cumbersome nature of the legislative process, many felt that their authority had been severely challenged either by the voters or by the approaching end of their natural terms. Additionally, Congress was much less likely to support an outgoing president’s policy initiatives, and a returning president was not as likely to sign off on laws sent by a Congress whose majority may have shifted as the result of an election.

The first major illustration of the direct problems resulting from lame-duck congresses and presidents came in early 1801. Federalists lost control of both houses of Congress and the presidency in the election of 1800, but the old Sixth Congress was still in power until March 3, 1801. The problem came when Republican Thomas Jefferson and Federalist Aaron Burr tied in Electoral College votes in their run for the presidency. As specified by the Constitution, the electoral deadlock was to be broken by the House of Representatives. But it would not be the new House elected in 1800 as part of the Seventh Congress that would break the deadlock, but rather the rejected Federalist majority of the Sixth Congress that would decide whether it was to be Jefferson or Burr who would become president. Though Jefferson eventually won the decision, it took thirty–six ballots and two weeks before he was finally named president.

Another famous problem resulting from the lame duck period was illustrated in the 1803 Marbury v. Madison case. The case arose in response to lame-duck appointments made by outgoing president John Adams—who had a habit of making a series of late-night, last-minute appointments—and set the stage for a landmark Supreme Court decision. This decision, written by Chief Justice John Marshall, denied the appointment made by lame-duck president Adams by declaring an earlier act of Congress relating to such appointments unconstitutional. This landmark ruling—the first time the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional—established the Court as an equal partner in federal government.

In the end, the Twentieth Amendment cleared up the problem of lame-duck appointments by shortening the lame duck period. The Congress is now sworn in on January 3 following the election, and the president is sworn in on January 20. Although the amendment came to be known as the “lame-duck” amendment, it also closed the gap in presidential power by specifying what will happen if a president-elect dies before being sworn in, and it reduced the awkward period during which an outgoing president holds office.

Changing Demands on the Federal Government

During the early nineteenth century the federal government was far less involved in shaping U.S. political life than it is in the early 2000s. Because of its limited powers, the fact that there were no laws requiring Congress to meet a certain number of times each year did not pose a serious problem. In fact, Americans at this time were still somewhat suspicious of a government that appeared too intrusive in states’ political affairs.

As the country grew through the nineteenth century and the federal government expanded to take on more responsibilities, the idea of a “part-time” government that met inconsistently was clearly no longer feasible. Although major changes would not come until the early days of the twentieth century, the disadvantages of long and short congressional sessions were becoming clear. Congress usually conducted two sessions, a longer one that began a year and month after the November election and a shorter one beginning in the December immediately after the election and lasting until March 3, when it expired. One of the more obvious problems caused by this schedule was the fact that each new Congress did not actually meet for over a year after its election by the people. The only exception was if the president used his constitutional power to call Congress into special session, as happened in 1861 after the outbreak of the Civil War.

The fact that Congress was unavailable in times of crisis, unless the president summoned its members, was a serious threat to the stability of the Union. More troubling yet was the fact that for thirteen months there was no speaker of the house or president pro tempore because the presiding officers of the Congress could not be chosen until the first regular session actually convened. If something happened to the president and vice president during the thirteen-month period when the presiding officers of the Congress had not yet been chosen, there would have been no one available to act as president despite the 1792 law governing presidential succession. In fact, there were several occasions during the nineteenth century when the vice president died in office and there was neither a speaker of the house nor a Senate president pro tempore. These types of potential crises would force the federal government to define more clearly its role in guiding the growth of the Union.

The Salary Grab Act

An even more pressing problem resulted when lame-duck Congresses passed bills that had little merit or granted favors to members of the House or Senate who were on their way out. One of the better-known examples of this practice occurred on March 3, 1873, when the Forty-second Congress attempted to raise their salaries by an exorbitant amount. The act quickly became know as the Salary Grab Act because its proposed measure to raise congressional salaries from $5,000 to $7,500 per year. Furthermore, the act made the increase retroactive to the beginning of the session, meaning that each representative and senator, including the ones on their way out of office at the end of the session, received $5,000 in back pay—$2,500 per year for the previous two years.

In the end, many members of both houses of Congress attempted to compensate for their poor judgment in adopting the Salary Grab Act. Some even donated their money to charities, and others returned the money directly to the federal treasury. The congressional repeal of this act in January 1874 did not placate the angry public. Driven by a strong distrust of their elected officials, citizens ousted those involved in the scandal in the 1874 congressional elections. The event, once again, clearly illustrated the problems with the lame duck period.

Reform Work of George W. Norris

Reform, however, was not far away. The twentieth century brought with it an intense push for a change in the way the federal government conducted its business. Few amendments can be traced to one legislator, but, to a large degree, the Twentieth Amendment came about as the result of the perseverance of one man: Senator George W. Norris (see sidebar). Indeed, as early as 1923, Norris became interested in the idea of a lame duck amendment, and he did not relent until he saw the idea come to fruition.

Norris was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1904, and he quickly earned a reputation as a man of conscience. From the beginning of his career, Norris was often at odds with his colleagues over the bills he supported. During his fifth term in office, for example, Norris began a campaign to limit the autocratic powers of the speaker of the house who, prior to 1910, enjoyed full control of the flow of all bills introduced in the House. In 1912 Norris won election to the Senate, and he spent the next thirty years as senator to improve the lives of farmers and the working poor.

Norris was a prominent member of the Progressive branch of the Republican Party. The Progressives believed that government needed to be more responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens, and they spearheaded many reforms associated with the Progressive Era in U.S. politics. During the 1920s Norris turned his attention to adopting the lame duck amendment to the Constitution. The amendment, written and sponsored by Norris, was eventually adopted and applied to both houses of Congress as well as to the president and vice president, but not before considerable controversy.

George W. Norris: Political Legend from Nebraska

The driving force behind the creation of the Twentieth Amendment, George W. Norris was a celebrated senator from Nebraska known for obeying his conscience rather than the commands of political parties. Born in Sandusky, Ohio, in 1861 to a farming family, Norris lost his father and older brother when he was only three years old and as a result, he grew up in near poverty. After earning a law degree from Northern Indiana Normal School, Norris headed west, eventually settling in Nebraska. Over the next several years, the future senator built a successful law practice, married and had three children, and began to gain wealth through land speculation. In 1892 Norris had his first taste of public life when he was elected prosecuting attorney for Furnas County. Three years later he was elected district judge to Nebraska’s Fourteenth District.

Norris was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1904 and joined the Senate in 1912. As an influential member of the Republican Party’s Progressive branch, Norris was instrumental in the passage of progressive legislation during the 1910s and early 1920s. According to his autobiography, Fighting Liberal, his decade-long quest to secure passage of the Twentieth Amendment was one of the most grueling challenges of his career, but it was certainly not his last. Norris was also known for his sponsorship of legislation that improved the standard of living for U.S. farmers. The Rural Electrification Act (REA), which Norris sponsored, required that ownership of power generation and delivery systems be placed in the public realm, keeping them away from greedy private corporations and making electricity affordable in rural areas. The act was sharply criticized by the likes of Henry Ford and other industrialists, but it won Norris the love of the rural people he represented.

In addition to the REA, Norris was a major figure in the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)—an engineering plan approved by Congress in 1933 to control serious flooding along the Tennessee River and its tributaries. One of the most ambitious federal engineering projects of the early twentieth century, the TVA constructed dams throughout the Tennessee River watershed and also brought cheap electricity to this impoverished area. The REA, the TVA, and the Twentieth Amendment were seen as the highlights of Norris’s service as a U.S. senator.

Norris continued to court controversy throughout his career. He was run out of the Republican Party after supporting Democratic candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election and won reelection in 1936 as an Independent. In 1942, however, Norris lost his bid for yet another term, and he returned to his home in McCook, Nebraska, where he died in 1944. Norris was honored in 1961 by being the first person to have his bust placed in the newly formed Nebraska Hall of Fame.

Political Passion and the Road to the Twentieth Amendment

Norris first became interested in a lame-duck amendment after witnessing the controversy over a 1922 bill, supported by then-president Warren G. Harding, that expanded the government’s commitment to the construction of ships. In spite of the controversy surrounding the subsidy bill, Harding used his political influence to push it through a lame-duck Congress supported, of course, by congressmen who had already been voted out of office several weeks before voting on the bill.

Senator Thaddeus Caraway, a Democrat from Arkansas, was enraged at these actions and sponsored a resolution barring lame-duck congressmen from participating in the making of federal law. Although the resolution was highly unpopular, it was referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, chaired by Norris. After spending time reviewing the proposal and the issues surrounding lame-duck elected officials, Norris became convinced that something had to be done. In particular, Norris was infuriated by the fact that the president could use lame-duck sessions in Congress to get his policies through by promising executive appointments to lame-duck congressmen who would support him.

Failure heightens commitment

Norris first attempted to push a constitutional amendment through Congress on December 5, 1922. Met by resistance that he attributed to an alliance between the Republican leadership in the House and the Republican-dominated executive branch, Norris failed to gain any significant support for the amendment for the next ten years. Although the Senate eventually passed the committee report on February 13, 1923, the House let it die. The same process happened several more times until, in January 1928, the House brought the proposal to a vote, and it failed to gain the necessary two-thirds support.

Determined to prevail, Norris pushed the proposal through the Senate for a fifth time on June 7, 1929. The amendment proposal sat in the House for the next ten months before it was addressed, and then it failed again to win support. Encouraged by the fact that the Democrats had finally gained control of the House of Representatives in 1930, Norris decided to revive the amendment for a sixth time. As he had hoped, it met with much more support and, nearly ten years after Norris first addressed the issue, Congress passed the amendment and offered it to the states for ratification on March 2, 1932. Less than a year later, on January 23, 1933, it had gained enough support to become the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, and on February 6, 1933, it was proclaimed in effect by the secretary of state.

The amendment was nearly put to the test just nine days after it went into effect. On February 15, 1933, a deranged gunman named Giuseppe Zangara fired six shots at president-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he finished addressing a crowd in Miami. The shots missed, killing Chicago mayor Anton H. Cermak instead, but if this assassination attempt had succeeded the Twentieth Amendment would have dictated that vice president-elect John Nance Garner be inaugurated as president on March 4. Luckily the amendment was put into effect less dramatically when Roosevelt and other elected officials began their terms on the newly set dates.

Congressional Power to Determine Who Serves as President

Section 3 of the Twentieth Amendment gives Congress the power to determine who shall serve as president if neither the president or vice president is able to serve when the new term begins on January 20, which could happen if a presidential election controversy was not fully resolved before that date. The Elections of 1876 and 2000 show that this is a possibility, however rare and remote. As John C. Fortier and Norman J. Ornstein point out, this congressional power could apply if a newly elected president and vice president were killed before they take office. They point out: “The constitutional language of the Twentieth Amendment does not require that the successors be ‘Officers’, and therefore congressional leaders would be eligible to succeed to the Presidency.”

Congress relied in part on Section 3 of the Twentieth Amendment to pass the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. Under this act, if the president and vice president cannot serve, the speaker of the House—upon resignation from the House—becomes next in line followed by the president pro tempore of the Senate.

Toward a More Efficient Government

The Twentieth Amendment has proved effective in many ways. Not only has it trimmed the transition period between presidencies and Congresses, but it has lessened the problems associated with lame duck congressional sessions. The amendment also set the stage for the adoption of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, which, among other matters, stipulates that the vice president-elect will become president should the president-elect die before taking office.

The Twentieth Amendment received attention during the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton in 1998. The final House vote was taken after the 1998 elections, but the Senate was not scheduled to hear the case until after the next Congress was sworn in in 1999. Many argued, unsuccessfully, that the Twentieth Amendment required a revote by the new House. In the end, President Clinton survived the impeachment trial when the Senate acquitted him on February 12, 1999. The controversy showed that the Twentieth Amendment dramatically shortened the period within which a lame duck Congress could act, but it did not completely eliminate its ability to act.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Books

Norris, George W. Fighting Liberal: The Autobiography of George W. Norris . 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

Bernstein, Richard B., with Jerome Agel. Amending America: If We Love the Constitution So Much, Why Do We Keep Trying to Change It? Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

Grimes, Alan P. Democracy and the Amendments to the Constitution. New York: University Press of America, 1988.

Periodicals

Dorf, Michael. “ In the Event of a Terrorist Attack Affecting the Election, Who Decides Whether to Delay? What the Constitution and Federal Statutes Say.” Findlaw Writ , July 21, 2004. (accessed September 12, 2007).

Fortier, John C., and Norman J. Ornstein. “Presidential Succession and Congressional Leaders.” Catholic University Law Review 53 (2004).

Nagle, John Cope. “A Twentieth Century Parable.” New York Law Review 72 (May 1997).

Web Sites

The Constitution of the United States of America. (accessed September 12, 2007).

Nickels, Ilona. Capitol Questions. (accessed September 12, 2007).

U.S. Constitution: Twentieth Amendment. (accessed September 12, 2007).

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