Ratified in 1933, the 20th Amendment of the Constitution revised start dates for presidential, vice presidential and congressional terms. Before its enactment, new terms didn't begin until March, meaning government officials potentially remained in office for several months after they'd been voted out. With advances in communication and transportation since the Constitution's drafting, this long period between terms was not necessary or desirable.
Bridging the Gap
When someone new is elected to federal office, a transition period between the date of the election and the beginning of work is necessary. For example, a president-elect has to decide who will serve as advisors and cabinet officials. Both new Congress members and executive branch officials need to become familiar with the pressing issues that will confront them in their new positions. Prior to the enactment of the 20th Amendment, the period between the date of an election and the beginning of a new term reflected the length of time required to travel to Washington, D.C., from distant parts of the country. Additionally, it could take weeks to finalize election results.
Moving the Date
The Constitution doesn't specify an exact date when terms of office begin. Soon after the Constitution was adopted, Congress enacted legislation designating the first Wednesday in March -- which happened to fall on March 4 that year -- as the date when terms would begin for the nation's first federal officers. However, since the Constitution did specify the length of terms, changing the date terms meant changing the term lengths for the people in office at the time. For that reason, changing the date could only be done by constitutional amendment. The 20th Amendment moves the presidential inauguration from March 4 to January 20 at noon. Congressional terms begin January 3 at noon. At the same time, the outgoing office holders' terms expire.
Shooting Lame Ducks
Between an election and the start of a new term, congressional sessions are called "lame duck" sessions because many members of Congress who attend them have been voted out of office in the election. People in finance historically used the phrase "lame duck" to refer to debtors who couldn't repay their loans. In the government context, the phrase describes a representative who, having lost an election, is no longer accountable to the voters. From the viewpoint of the framers of the 20th Amendment, allowing lame ducks to enact laws was undemocratic because the majority of voters had rejected that member's political views. However, the 20th Amendment only shortened the lame-duck period -- it didn't eliminate it entirely. From 1933 through 2012, laws have been passed in 18 lame-duck sessions of Congress.
The 12th Amendment, as ratified in 1804, provided for the vice president to serve as acting president if something happened to the president and the House of Representatives was unable to select a replacement by March 4. Since the 20th Amendment moved Inauguration Day to January 20, it also corrected this portion of the 12th Amendment and provided a process for a scenario in which the president-elect dies or otherwise becomes unqualified for office in the time between election and inauguration. If the president dies, the vice president is sworn in as president. If the president merely becomes incapacitated or otherwise is unable to perform the duties of the office, however, the vice president becomes the acting president and is expected to step down when the president is ready to resume the role.
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