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]


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[sic] 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.

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 Evan 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 moved the beginning of the presidential and vice presidential terms from March 4 to noon on January 20, reducing by about six weeks the time when the incumbent president and vice president would be serving as lame ducks. Section 1 also moved the start of congressional terms from March 4 to noon on January 3.

Section 2 moved the start of congressional sessions from the first Monday in December to noon on January 3 of the same year. This removed the requirement for a lame duck session, but Congress still normally meets in December of election years. Because of Section 2, if the Electoral College fails to resolve who will be the president or vice president, the incoming Congress, as opposed to the outgoing one, would choose who would occupy the unresolved office or offices.[9]

The first congressional terms to begin under Section 1 were those of the 74th Congress, on January 3, 1935. The first presidential and vice presidential terms to begin under Section 1 were the second terms of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vice President John Nance Garner, on January 20, 1937.

Section 3 provides that if the president-elect dies before Inauguration Day, the vice president-elect will be sworn in as president on that day. If there is no president-elect, or the president-elect fails to meet all of the Constitution's qualifications to be president, this section provides that the vice president-elect would become Acting President on Inauguration Day until there is a president who does qualify. 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.[10] 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 in the election of 1800 and when Congress seemed unable to resolve the disputed 1876 election.[11][12]

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 Garner would have become president on March 4, 1933 pursuant to Section 3.[11]

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.[10][13]

The amendment was adopted on January 23, 1933. Pursuant to Section 5, the changes made by Sections 1 and 2 took effect on October 15, 1933. This delay resulted in the start of congressional terms in 1933, and the first inauguration of President Roosevelt and Vice President Garner, taking place on March 4, 1933. Section 5 also resulted in the 73rd Congress not being required to meet until January 3, 1934. Therefore, pursuant to a presidential proclamation, a special 100-day session of Congress was convened from March 9 to June 16, 1933.


  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. ^ See Twelfth Amendment for details on how the Congress would choose.
  10. ^ 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 May 23, 2012. Retrieved May 23, 2012 – via WebCite. 
  11. ^ 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. 
  12. ^ 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. 
  13. ^ Kalt, Brian C. (April 12, 2016). "Don't Kill the Candidate: Remedying Congress's Failure to Use Section 4 of the Twentieth Amendment". Michigan State University College of Law. pp. 18–19. SSRN 2635633Freely accessible. 

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