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.
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.
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.
4: The Congress may by law provide for the case of the 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.
5: Sections 1 and 2 shall take effect on the 15th day of October following the ratification of this article.
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.
Congress proposed the Twentieth Amendment in March 1932 and it was ratified 327 days later in January 1933. The lack of controversy surrounding the amendment’s proposal and ratification has been matched by a lack of attention to it since ratification. Unlike some other, even seemingly innocuous provisions in the Constitution, there have been no major U.S. Supreme Court cases interpreting it or significant political controversies surrounding it.
This despite the fact that it was intended to effect an important change in American political practice.
Professor Nina Mendelson explains that the main purpose of the amendment was to
increase “the responsiveness of government to the people’s will as expressed through the election.” Nina A. Mendelson, “Quick Off the Mark? In Favor of Empowering the President-Elect” 103 Northwestern University Law Review Colloquy 464, 472 (2009). The way this was to be achieved was by abolishing “lame duck” sessions of Congress.
The lame duck sessions were created by the interaction of two Constitutional provisions.
First, Article I of the Constitution originally provided that Congress would convene once a year in December (article I, section 4, clause 2). Second, prior to the Twentieth Amendment, presidential, vice-presidential and Congressional terms began in March, four months after the presidential elections. The date for the commencement of the new Constitutional officers had been set by the First Congress. The Constitution itself specified the length of the terms so, in order to be faithful to the Constitutional mandate regarding term length, newly elected officials would take office two, four and six years from the date in March the First Congress had appointed.
These two provisions taken together resulted in a long session in election years during which the president and members of Congress could continue to enact legislation and perform other functions after the election, even when those officials had been rejected by voters.
There were some obvious concerns with the lame duck sessions. For instance, the problem of accountability of elected officials to those they are meant to represent when an election has been held and an official has been rejected by voters but that official is still making law. Officials who have not been retained in office are also likely to be susceptible to other pressures, such as the need to find work following their exit from office. See John Copeland Nagle, “A Twentieth Amendment Parable” 72 N.Y.U. Law Review 470, 479 (1997).
Because the lame duck sessions were created by Constitutional provisions shortening the terms was not possible without amending the Constitution itself.
That is exactly what the Twentieth Amendment was meant to do. The Senate Judiciary Committee report on the proposed amendment specifically said one “effect of the amendment would be to abolish the so-called short session of Congress.” Congressional Research Service, Annotated Constitution: Twentieth Amendment at http://www.gpoaccess.gov/constitution/pdf2002/038.pdf.
By abolishing the lame duck sessions, the Twentieth Amendment would resolve the problems associated with them and increase the responsiveness of elected officials to their constituents.
The amendment would accomplish this by doing away with the mandatory December session, moving it instead to the subsequent January 3rd when the amendment called for the new Congressional session to begin. The president would be inaugurated shortly thereafter. If, for instance, the November election had not resulted in a clear majority in the Electoral College, the newly elected members of Congress, rather than the old, would select the new president.
The problem is that while the framers of the Twentieth Amendment did not “expect the outgoing Congress to meet during the lame-duck period from Election Day in November until January 3” that is, in fact, what happened. Nagle at p. 485. So, even after the Twentieth Amendment was ratified, lame duck sessions continue to be held with outgoing officials enacting legislation, spending money and bailing out industries. Presidents have been particularly active during this period, issuing pardons, signing treaties and appointing judges.
The failure of the Twentieth Amendment to do away with lame duck session illustrates a truth the Founders knew well—the law cannot supply what is lacking when self-restraint fails.
William C. Duncan is director of the Marriage Law Foundation (www.marriagelawfoundation.org). He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.