By Donald A. Ritchie
The 111th Congress began in January 2009 amid complaints about the long wait for the inauguration of the new president, and ended amid complaints about the long the lame duck session at its tail. Critics, who lament that transitions in the American government do not move as efficiently as in a parliamentary system, have declared the Twentieth Amendment a failure. While it is true that the U.S. Constitution set up a system that is anything but speedy, the Twentieth Amendment was actually a reform that reset the calendar and moved up the clock.
Hang on because this gets complicated: Back in 1788, after enough states had ratified the Constitution, the outgoing Congress under the Articles of Confederation set the first Wednesday in January as the date for the first presidential election. The Electoral College would cast its ballots on the first Wednesday in February, and the new government would begin on the first Wednesday in March, which was March 4, 1789. Due to the limits of eighteenth-century transportation, neither the House nor the Senate could establish a quorum on that day, so the House did not get down to business until April 1, and the Senate on April 6. They officially notified George Washington of his election, and he was inaugurated on April 30.
From then until 1933, presidential and congressional terms began on March 4, but the Constitution also decreed that Congress would not convene until the first Monday in December (unless called back early for an emergency session). Since elections were held in November, four months would elapse before a new president took office. A new Congress would wait a year and a month before starting its work. The first session of every Congress took place thirteen months after the election, and the second session began in the December after the next election. Every second session of Congress was therefore a lame duck session in its entirety.
Reformers complained that these second sessions contained members who had not run for reelection, or who had been defeated, which made them more responsive to lobbyists than to the public interest. In the 1920s, Nebraska Senator George Norris, a Progressive Republican, chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, and led the long struggle to changes these dates through a constitutional amendment. The Twentieth Amendment halved the time between the election and a presidential inauguration by moving the inauguration up to January 20. It staggered the inauguration and the opening of Congress so that presidents need not spend their last nights in office signing and vetoing the last bills that Congress passed. And it moved the start of the new Congress up eleven months from December to January, so that only two months would elapse between the election and the new Congress. Since Congress only met for half the year in those days, they expected this would eliminate lame duck sessions
The Twentieth Amendment did not make lame duck sessions impossible, however. It only reduced their likelihood, and limited their duration. The Amendment did not prohibit Congress from meeting whenever necessary, and in fact the first lame duck took place only seven years after the amendment was ratified. The first occurred in 1940, because of the war in Europe. Lame ducks continued during World War II and the Korea War, and sporadically thereafter. Most dealt with unfinished appropriations, but some handled matters of considerable consequence, from the censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, and passage of some landmark legislation, such as the massive Alaska Land Conservation Act in 1980. Despite complaints, the Amendment remains a marked improvement over what existed before and provides a flexible enough system to meet varying legislative demands.
Donald A. Ritchie is Historian of the Senate and the author of Our Constitution, The Oxford Guide to the United States Government, Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, and most recently The U.S. Congress: A Very Short Introduction.