The Constitution’s Twentieth Amendment: Limiting Lame Duck Mischief

Sen. NorrisThe Twentieth Amendment to the US Constitution

Explaining the need for the Twentieth Amendment is messy.  That is because despite the care taken in drafting, the Constitution left a few matters messy.  The Constitution provided terms of office for House members, Senators and the President.  It did not give dates for when those terms would begin.  It left the times for choosing the elected members to the states. It required Congress to meet at least once a year beginning the first Monday in December.  That was perhaps the only very clear matter on these technical, yet important issues.

Given the uncertainty of when or if the Constitution would be ratified and go into effect lack of detailed dates is understandable.  The Constitution required nine states to go into effect, and a date for that was unpredictable. It would take 145 years to address the problems created by the uncertainty.

The Ninth State Ratifies and Continental Congress Sets a Date

New Hampshire became the required ninth state to ratify the Constitution on June 21, 1788. The Continental Congress set March 4, 1789 as the date for the new government to begin operations under the Constitution.  The Constitution did not go into effect for nearly nine months after it was ratified, reflecting 18th century travel and communications.

Congressmen Defeated But Continue in Officer Over a Year

The undefined matters in the Constitution, the command for annual December sessions and the March 4 choice by the Continental Congress created some strange situations. Newly elected congressmen would not take office for 13 months after their election,[1] and defeated congressmen could remain in office for 13 months after losing their jobs. A president could lose reelection and remain in office for four months.  Office holders who had lost, but continued to serve became known as “lame ducks”.[2]

While this would be a problem for the newly elected and for the people, it was not really a problem for the folks in government.  They could engage in all kinds of mischief in the coming year without worrying about the political future.  That explains the 145 year time frame for the fix.

Similar issues involved presidents that lost re-election in November, but remained president until March 4th the following year.[3]

Abraham LincolnFour Months for a New President to Take Office

In the late 18th century these problems were important, but the federal government was not the strong central government it would become. By the mid-19th century when Abraham Lincoln had to wait four months after his election and the nation on the brink of Civil War, it became an untenable situation. The importance of new officials assuming office soon after an election became clear as Franklin Roosevelt waited four months with the country in the middle of the Great Depression.

Improved Communications and Growth of Federal Government

With improvements in travel and communication and the growth of the federal government, multiple concerns grew over the extended time “lame ducks” continued to exercise power.  These “lame duck” office holders no longer had any responsibility to the electorate, putting them in the position to pass either ill-considered or even ill-willed legislation, and the government’s power over people’s lives continued to increase.

Ratification of the 20th Amendment

As a result of these issues on March 2, 1932, Congress sent the Twentieth Amendment to the States for ratification. Ratification became effective on Jan. 23, 1933 when the States of Georgia, Missouri, Ohio and Utah all ratified.

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution

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.

Clearing Up Technical Problems 145 Years Old and Limits Lame Ducks

The 20th Amendment made more constitutional changes than any other. Among them:

1.    Changed the date of the start of Congress

2.    Shortened terms of sitting Congressmen and Senators

3.    Changed the terms of the President and Vice-President

4.    Modified the Twelfth Amendment, changing the date that Congress had to choose a President

5.    Modified the Seventeenth Amendment regarding the terms of Senators.

6.    Provided for a Vice-President-elect to become President should the President-elect die before taking office. (This was the second of three amendments needed to clarify the role of the vice-president.  The Twelfth and Twenty-Fifth also addressed founding oversights.)

Senator George Norris and the Far-Reaching Lame Duck Amendment

Senator George Norris of Nebraska was the principal sponsor of the Twentieth Amendment, also known as the “Lame Duck Amendment”. Senator Norris believed it to be his greatest legislative achievement and he is likely correct.

Much writing about the Constitution addresses Original Intent and deeper issues of federalism and separation of powers.  There is a salutary lesson in the Twentieth Amendment.

It took 145 years to correct the details, because the uncertainty left in the original Constitution had worked to the benefit of people holding office.  There was little reason, other than actual national interest to limit the power of lame ducks or shorten the time frame for a president to take office.  There was no incentive in the government to change.  That makes the change all the more worth study.

The Twentieth Amendment addressed many technical details that had been left uncertain in 1787.  The technical details had worked to the benefit of officeholders for that time.  Senator Norris and his colleagues made technical changes in the Constitution that benefited the citizens rather than the officeholders.  They deserve our thanks.

[1]While this would be a problem for the newly elected, at some point in the future, they might be “lame ducks”.  There was no reason for new congressmen to try and change this situation once in office.

[2]The term has its roots in the English stock market, but in America has come to be applied to an office holder with time left on his term, but no longer subject to election.

[3]The 20th Amendment shortened the time for changing presidents to 2.5 months, and the last months of a presidency often allow presidents to do things they might not do if continuing in office.  This frequently includes controversial pardons.



For Further Reading



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