Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Monday, January 25, 2021

The Lame-Duck Amendment of 1933

“In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.” - President Ronald Reagan

On January 20, 2021, the United States inaugurated Joseph Biden as the 46th president. However, it hasn’t always been held in January. Interestingly, the date change has a connection to the Jazz Age.

Historically, the inauguration had been on March 4th, which was four months after the election. This date resulted from Article I, Section 4, Clause 2 of the Constitution. Congress set March 4, 1789, as the date “for commencing proceedings” of the newly reorganized government. These scheduling decisions resulted in a long, four-month lame-duck period between the new President’s election and inauguration. Because they were voted out of office, defeated politicians would serve as lame ducks, incapable of effectively representing their constituents or affecting public policy. Critics, particularly those in the Progressive Movement that had been vital to other political reforms, argued that shrinking the gap in time between elections and taking office amounted to an immediate call to public service.

At times, this lame-duck Constitutional provision led to some bizarre attempts by presidents to circumvent it. In 1916, during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson devised a plan to avoid a lame-duck presidency and allow his Republican opponent Charles Evans Hughes to assume presidential powers immediately if Hughes had won the election. Wilson planned to appoint Hughes as Secretary of State. This appointment would have made him first in line to act as President in the event of a simultaneous vacancy in President and vice president’s offices thanks to another odd feature of Article 1. President Wilson and Vice President Thomas R. Marshall would have then both resigned. Wilson never implemented the plan since he was narrowly re-elected.

In 1932, to resolve this problem, Sen. George W. Norris of Nebraska proposed a twentieth Constitutional Amendment. This amendment established that 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.” Because its goal was end the lame-duck Congress, the Twentieth Amendment became known as the “Lame-Duck Amendment.”

On January 23, 1933, the Twentieth Amendment was adopted making FDR the first US president to be inaugurated on January 20th in 1937. 

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