Amendment XX, Section 2:
The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3rd day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.
The XXth Amendment is fairly straightforward. Often referred to as the “Lame Duck Amendment” the XXth Amendment’s purpose is to update gaps in the original draft of the Constitution setting the time and dates for the Congress and the President — in particular the amendment changed when terms of elected federal officials begin and end in order to line their terms beginning and ending with the election process.
The amendment’s purpose is to limit the chances that when Congress meets the legislators casting the votes were duly elected, rather than retirees or those who had failed to win re-election.
The primary sponsor of the XXth Amendment was Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska. Senator Norris believed it to be his greatest legislative achievement. It was passed on March 2, 1932.
When the Constitution was originally ratified, the outgoing Congress under the Articles of Confederation had set March 4, 1789 as the date for which the new federal government would begin. On an ongoing basis the Constitution provided that the Congressional session would begin on the first Monday in December.
In addition, the second session would begin a month after the election and continue until March 3. This had the effect of allowing Members to serve during the second session even if they had retired, were defeated, or simply had not chosen to run for re-election.
Initially the schedule made sense as it accommodated the travel and weather difficulties that faced the new nation. At the time of the founding, roads were bad and travel long distances was often difficult. Having four months from Election Day to the start of the session seemed prudent. However, over time, the improvement in road building and the use of trains and boats made such a delay unnecessary.
In addition, the time delay had other pernicious effects. When President Roosevelt was first elected he was required to wait four months before he could begin any steps to respond to the Great Depression. Many across the nation believed that the provisions in the Constitution setting the dates for a 19th century world were particularly unhelpful in the 20th century.
This led to the push for passage of the XXth Amendment.
In addition to limiting “lame-ducks” from setting policy at the national level, the XXth Amendment also means that there was a shorter period between the election and the convening of the new Congress and that the outgoing President would have time to consider the outgoing Congress’ legislation.
Marc Lampkin is a Shareholder at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and is a graduate of the Boston College Law School
May 22, 2012