Twentieth Amendment to the United States Constitution

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The Twentieth Amendment (Amendment XX) to the United States Constitution moved the beginning and ending of the terms of the president and vice president from March 4 to January 20, and of members of Congress from March 4 to January 3. It also has provisions that determine what is to be done when there is no president-elect; the Twentieth Amendment was adopted on January 23, 1933.[1]

The amendment was designed largely to limit the "lame duck" period, the period served by Congress and the president after an election but before the end of the terms of those who were not re-elected. Indirectly, the amendment requires the incoming Congress, rather than the outgoing Congress, to hold a contingent election in the event that no individual wins a majority of the electoral vote in a presidential election; the amendment also establishes procedures in the case that a president-elect dies, is not chosen, or otherwise fails to qualify prior to the start of a new presidential term.


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 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.

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.

Historical background[edit]

Article I, Section 4, Clause 2 of the Constitution states that Congress must meet at least once per year, on the first Monday in December, though Congress could by law set another date and the president could summon special sessions.

The original text of the Constitution set a duration for the terms of federal elected officials, but not the specific dates on which those terms would begin or end; the Constitution also specified qualifications for Representatives, Senators and the President. However, it does not explicitly stipulate what was to be done if the Electoral College attempted to elect a constitutionally unqualified person as President, although some constitutional scholars[who?] have argued that the words "Inability" and "Disability" as stated in Article II were intended to deal with, among other things, any potential case of an "unqualified" individual being elected President, including purely technical, legal and constitutional cases and perhaps even mere politically perceived ones.[citation needed]

In September 1788, after the necessary nine states had ratified the Constitution, the Congress of the Confederation set March 4, 1789, as the date "for commencing proceedings" of the newly reorganized government. Despite the fact that the new Congress and presidential administration did not begin operation until April, March 4 was deemed to be the beginning of the newly elected officials' terms of office, and thus of the terms of their successors;[2] the Constitution did not specify a date for federal elections, but by the time of the second presidential election in 1792, Congress had passed a law requiring presidential electors to be chosen during November or early December.[3] By 1845, this was narrowed to a single day, in early November.[4] Congressional elections were generally held on the same day.

The result of these scheduling decisions was that there was a long, four-month lame duck period between the election and inauguration of the president. For Congress, the situation was perhaps even more awkward; because Article I, Section 4, Clause 2 mandated a Congressional meeting every December, after the election but before Congressional terms of office had expired, a lame duck session was required by the Constitution in even-numbered years; the next session wasn't required until the next December, meaning that new members of Congress might not begin their work until more than a year after they had been elected. Special sessions sometimes met earlier in the year, but this never became a regular practice, despite the Constitution allowing for it. In practice, Congress usually met in a long session beginning in Decembers of odd-numbered years, and in a short lame duck session in December of even-numbered years;[5] the long lame duck period might have been a practical necessity at the end of the 18th century, when any newly elected official might require several months to put his affairs in order and then undertake an arduous journey from his home to the national capital, but it eventually had the effect of impeding the functioning of government in the modern age. From the early 19th century onward, it also meant that a lame duck Congress and presidential administration would fail to adequately respond to a significant national crisis in a timely manner; each institution could do this on the theory that at best, a lame duck Congress or administration had neither the time nor the mandate to tackle problems, whereas the incoming administration or Congress would have both the time, and a fresh electoral mandate, to examine and address the problems that the nation faced. These problems very likely would have been at the center of the debate of the just completed election cycle.

This dilemma was seen most notably in 1861 and 1933, after the elections of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, respectively, plus the newly elected Senators and Representatives. Under the Constitution at the time, these presidents had to wait four months before they and the incoming Congresses could deal with the secession of Southern states and the Great Depression respectively.

In 1916, during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson devised an unorthodox 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. In that case, Wilson planned to appoint Hughes as Secretary of State, at the time first in line to act as President in the event of a simultaneous vacancy in the offices of president and vice president. President Wilson and Vice President Thomas R. Marshall would have then both resigned. The plan was never implemented because Wilson was narrowly re-elected.[6]

Proposal and ratification[edit]

The Twentieth Amendment,
National Archives
20th Amendment Pg1of2 AC.jpg
20th Amendment Pg2of2 AC.jpg

The 72nd Congress proposed the Twentieth Amendment on March 2, 1932, and the amendment was ratified by the following states:[7]

  1. Virginia (March 4, 1932)
  2. New York (March 11, 1932)
  3. Mississippi (March 16, 1932)
  4. Arkansas (March 17, 1932)
  5. Kentucky (March 17, 1932)
  6. New Jersey (March 21, 1932)
  7. South Carolina (March 25, 1932)
  8. Michigan (March 31, 1932)
  9. Maine (April 1, 1932)
  10. Rhode Island (April 14, 1932)
  11. Illinois (April 21, 1932)
  12. Louisiana (June 22, 1932)
  13. West Virginia (July 30, 1932)
  14. Pennsylvania (August 11, 1932)
  15. Indiana (August 15, 1932)
  16. Texas (September 7, 1932)
  17. Alabama (September 13, 1932)
  18. California (January 4, 1933)
  19. North Carolina (January 5, 1933)
  20. North Dakota (January 9, 1933)
  21. Minnesota (January 12, 1933)
  22. Arizona (January 13, 1933)
  23. Montana (January 13, 1933)
  24. Nebraska (January 13, 1933)
  25. Oklahoma (January 13, 1933)
  26. Kansas (January 16, 1933)
  27. Oregon (January 16, 1933)
  28. Delaware (January 19, 1933)
  29. Washington (January 19, 1933)
  30. Wyoming (January 19, 1933)
  31. Iowa (January 20, 1933)
  32. South Dakota (January 20, 1933)
  33. Tennessee (January 20, 1933)
  34. Idaho (January 21, 1933)
  35. New Mexico (January 21, 1933)
  36. Missouri (January 23, 1933) Missouri was the 36th state to ratify, satisfying the requirement that three-fourths of the then 48 states approve the amendment.[8] The amendment was subsequently ratified by the following states:
  37. Georgia (January 23, 1933)
  38. Ohio (January 23, 1933)
  39. Utah (January 23, 1933)
  40. Massachusetts (January 24, 1933)
  41. Wisconsin (January 24, 1933)
  42. Colorado (January 24, 1933)
  43. Nevada (January 26, 1933)
  44. Connecticut (January 27, 1933)
  45. New Hampshire (January 31, 1933)
  46. Vermont (February 2, 1933)
  47. Maryland (March 24, 1933)
  48. Florida (April 26, 1933)

Effect of the amendment[edit]

Section 1 of the Twentieth Amendment prescribes January 20, at noon, as the start-finish date for the four-year term of both the President and Vice President. Previously March 4, the new date shortened the period between election day in November and Inauguration Day by about six weeks, accelerating the pace of the transfer of presidential power from the out-going president to his successor.[9] By changing the date on which presidential terms end and begin, Section 1 has superseded the Twelfth Amendment's reference to March 4 as the date by which the House of Representatives must—under circumstances where no candidate won an absolute majority of votes for president in the Electoral College—conduct a contingent presidential election.[10] Section 1 also specifies January 3, at noon, as the start-finish date for the terms of members of the Senate and the House of Representatives; the previous date had also been March 4.[11]

Section 2 moves the yearly start date of congressional sessions from the first Monday in December, as mandated by Article I, Section 4, Clause 2, to noon on January 3 of the same year; this change eliminated the extended lame duck congressional sessions.[12] As a result of this change, if the Electoral College vote has not resulted in the election of either a president or vice president, the incoming Congress, as opposed to the outgoing one, would have to do so, following the process articulated in the Twelfth Amendment.[10]

Section 3 further refines the earlier mentioned Twelfth Amendment provision by declaring that if the president-elect dies before Inauguration Day, the vice president-elect will be sworn in as president on that day and serve for the full four-year term to which that person was elected; it further states that if on Inauguration Day a president-elect has not yet been chosen, or if the president-elect fails to qualify, the vice president-elect would become Acting President on Inauguration Day until a president-elect is chosen or the president-elect qualifies. Section 3 also authorizes Congress to determine who should be acting president if a new president and vice president have not been chosen by Inauguration Day. Acting on this authority, Congress added "failure to qualify" as a possible condition for presidential succession in the Presidential Succession Act of 1947.[13][14] Previously silent on this point, the lack of guidance nearly caused a constitutional crisis on a couple of occasions: when the House of Representatives seemed unable to break the deadlocked election of 1800 and when Congress seemed unable to resolve the disputed 1876 election.[15][16]

On February 15, 1933, twenty-three days after the amendment was adopted, President-elect Roosevelt was the target of an assassination attempt by Giuseppe Zangara. Roosevelt was not injured, but had the attempt been successful, Vice President-elect John Nance Garner would have become president on March 4, 1933 pursuant to Section 3.[15]

Section 4 permits Congress to pass a law that clarifies what should occur if either the House of Representatives must elect the president and one of the candidates from whom it may choose dies, or the Senate must elect the vice president and one of the candidates from whom it may choose dies. Congress has never enacted such a statute.[14][17]

Section 5 delayed Sections 1 and 2 taking effect until the first October 15 following the amendment's ratification; as it was adopted on January 23, 1933, Section 1 shortened the terms of representatives elected to the 73rd Congress (1933–35), as well as those of senators elected for terms ending in 1935, 1937, and 1939, by 60 days.[18] Section 5 also resulted in the 73rd Congress not being required to meet until January 3, 1934; the first Congress to open its first session on the new date was the 74th Congress in 1935.[19] The first presidential and vice presidential terms to begin on the date appointed by the Twentieth Amendment were the second terms of President Roosevelt and Vice President Garner, on January 20, 1937.[12] Section 1 had shortened the first term of both (1933–37) by 43 days.[18] Garner thus served as vice-president for two full terms, but he did not serve a full eight years (March 4, 1933–January 20, 1941).


  1. ^ Constitution of the United States: Amendments 11-27 Retrieved October 7, 2011
  2. ^ Ackerman, Bruce (2005). The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy; the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pp. 117–8.
  3. ^ The bill originally specified a 30-day period for the states to choose their electors. Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 2nd Congress, 1st Session, p. 278
  4. ^ Statutes at Large, 28th Congress, 2nd Session, p. 721
  5. ^ Ackerman, Bruce (2005). The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy; the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 119.
  6. ^ Jackson, Michael W. (October 22, 2013). "If Woodrow Wilson had lost the 1916 election". Political theory and practice: Thinking and doing; the University of Sydney, Australia. Retrieved June 24, 2018.
  7. ^ "Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation" (PDF). Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, Library of Congress. August 26, 2017. pp. 3–44. Retrieved July 20, 2018.
  8. ^ "'Lame Ducks' Doom Sealed"— Missouri Is 36th State To Ratify 20th Amendment To Constitution", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 24, 1933, p1
  9. ^ Halchin, L. Elaine (May 17, 2017). "Presidential Transitions: Issues Involving Outgoing and Incoming Administrations" (PDF). Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. Retrieved July 24, 2018.
  10. ^ a b Whitaker, L. Paige; Neale, Thomas H. (November 5, 2004) [January 16, 2001]. "The Electoral College: An Overview and Analysis of Reform Proposals" (PDF). Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress. Retrieved July 23, 2018 – via UNT Libraries Government Documents Department; UNT Digital Library.
  11. ^ "The Significance of March 4". Washington, D.C.: Secretary of the U.S. Senate. Retrieved July 24, 2018.
  12. ^ a b "The First Inauguration after the Lame Duck Amendment: January 20, 1937". Washington, D.C.: Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives. Retrieved July 24, 2018.
  13. ^ Larson, Edward J.; Shesol, Jeff. "The Twentieth Amendment". The Interactive Constitution. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The National Constitution Center. Retrieved June 15, 2018.
  14. ^ a b "The Continuity of the Presidency: The Second Report of the Continuity of Government Commission" (PDF). Preserving Our Institutions. Washington, D.C.: Continuity of Government Commission. June 2009. p. 31. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 4, 2016. Retrieved May 23, 2012 – via WebCite. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  15. ^ a b Bomboy, Scott (August 11, 2017). "Five little-known men who almost became president". Constitution Daily. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: National Constitution Center. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
  16. ^ Ackerman, Bruce (2005). The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy; the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pp. 77ff.
  17. ^ Kalt, Brian C. (October 26, 2017). "Of Death and Deadlocks: Section 4 of the Twentieth Amendment". Michigan State University College of Law. pp. 18–19. SSRN 2635633. Retrieved August 4, 2018.
  18. ^ a b "Commencement of the Terms of Office: Twentieth Amendment" (PDF). Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, Library of Congress. pp. 2297–98. Retrieved July 24, 2018.
  19. ^ "The 20th Amendment: January 03, 1935". Washington, D.C.: Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives. Retrieved July 24, 2018.

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