Known as the “Lame Duck” Amendment, the Twentieth Amendment changed the start dates of federal terms of office following federal elections for the offices of President, Vice President, and members of Congress. The modification shortened the transition period between a November election day and the date newly elected officials would take office.
Congress passed the Twentieth Amendment on March 2, 1932, and it was ratified by the states on January 23, 1933. It has six sections and reads, in part:
The terms of the President and the 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.
Prior to the ratification of the Twentieth Amendment, the newly elected Congress would first convene in December every odd-numbered year. This means that when November elections were held in even-numbered years (e.g. 1996, 2000, 2004, etc.), Congress members voted out of office would retain authority for thirteen months to consider pending legislation, vote on bills, cause chaos, and wreak havoc without regard to the best interests of the constituents they were hired (and then fired) to represent. To allow an unelected official, recently ousted from his or her job, to vote on impactful legislation would lend itself to “votes of vengeance” and abuse of authority.
The Twentieth Amendment also establishes the status of both the President-elect and the Vice President-elect if unique and unexpected events were to take place during the transition period between the election and the beginning of a term of office set forth in the Amendment. For example, the Twentieth Amendment provides that if a President-elect dies prior to the beginning of his or her first term in office, the Vice President-elect shall become President at the beginning of the first term. This means that the change of command will continue despite the death of a President-elect.
In addition, this amendment to our Constitution grants Congress certain powers in order to address unique scenarios if both the President-elect and the Vice President-elect became unqualified to serve prior to the start of their terms of office. To date, the Twentieth Amendment has not been a focal point of any Supreme Court of the United States decision.
Editor’s Note: The Twenty-fifth Amendment, which we will explore in our continuing series on Constitutional amendments, will eventually expand upon scenarios regarding the succession of the Presidency.