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Why Does the Transition Take So Long?

The election seems like old news at this point and yet we are still over a month away from inauguration day.  Donald Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, Our Constitution, and The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion, looks at this lag in historical perspective. Ritchie, who has been Associate Historian of the United States Senate for more than three decades, explains why a President-elect may need this time prepare to take over.

Many Americans, and the rest of the world, wonder why so much time elapses between the U.S. presidential election in November and the inauguration on January 20. Why not reform the system and reduce the interval? The answer is we did reform it–the interregnum used to last twice as long.

Under the original Constitutional scheme, the new president took office on March 4, four months after the November elections. The new Congress would not convene until the first Monday in December, thirteen months after the election. This made sense to the framers in the eighteenth century, when transportation was slow and treacherous. The incoming president would call the Senate into special session for a week in March to confirm his cabinet, and then have the rest of the year to get his administration underway free from congressional interference.

By the twentieth century, the old system had grown obsolete. The second session of every Congress did not meet until after the next election had taken place, meaning that senators and representatives who had been defeated or retired came back as lame ducks. They proved especially susceptible to lobbyists, and since the short session had to end at midnight on March 3, they could easily filibuster to block needed legislation. George Norris, a progressive Republican from Nebraska who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, led the effort to amend the Constitution and move the presidential inauguration from March 4 to January 20, and the opening of Congress from December up to January 3. By staggering the closing dates of the terms of the president and Congress, the amendment also eliminated the need for outgoing presidents to spend their last night on Capitol Hill signing and vetoing last-minute legislation.

Beyond getting rid of most lame duck sessions, Norris’ amendment halved the transition between presidential administrations, from four months down to two. Transitions had grown increasingly awkward. During peaceful and prosperous times, the incoming president had to keep out of the way of his predecessor. Herbert Hoover, for instance, sailed off to South America after the 1928 election to avoid upstaging Calvin Coolidge’s final months in office. During periods of conflict and crisis, however, the interregnum cost the nation needed leadership. Outgoing presidents tried to coerce their successors into continuing their policies, as James Buchanan attempted with Abraham Lincoln in 1861, and Herbert Hoover did with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Lincoln and Roosevelt wisely avoided committing themselves to failed ideas, but these impasses did nothing to resolve the crises they faced, which grew worse by the time they took office.

The transition between Hoover and Roosevelt took place against a dramatic collapse of the American financial system, with the nation’s banking system shutting down, credit drying up, and unemployment soaring. Congress had passed the Twentieth Amendment in March 1932 and sent it to the states, but the necessary three quarters of the states did not ratify it until January 23, 1933, three days after the new date for inaugurations, making it too late for that year. The first inauguration on January 20 took place in 1937.

That last long interregnum convinced everyone that a shorter transition was preferable, but is the current system still too long? In a parliamentary system such as Great Britain’s, the new prime minister can move into 10 Downing Street the day after the election and the new cabinet can show up ready for work. The American system of separation of powers, however, makes no provision for a shadow cabinet in waiting. The president-elect needs time to select cabinet members and a host of other executive branch nominees who will be confirmed by the Senate. It may not do the new president any favor to shorten the interregnum further, although when times are tough the inauguration still looks awfully far away.

Recent Comments

  1. MNPundit

    I talked about this over at Mahablog and pointed out that perhaps the President could take office immediately after the start of the New Year.

    Either that or make Shadow Cabinets legal in this country.

  2. Don Sherfick

    If we wanted to speed up the transition even more, here’s a perfectly moral, legal, and constitutial way do so:

    Nancy Pelosi calls the House of Representatives back into session, and steps aside as Speaker. Since constitutional scholars agree that the Speaker of the House need not be a member of that body, they elect Barak Obama to that post. Then George Bush and Dick Cheney both resign. The Speaker of the House is next in line, and becomes President to fill out the remainder of Bush’s term. Obama can still be re-elected in 2012 because the 22nd Amendment permits that for a person serving out another President’s term for less than two years. However, Joe Biden can’t become Vice-President immediately by the same means, but he could quickly take that office if he’s nominated by Obama and a majority of both Houses of Congress approve, as the 25th Amendment provides. Anybody see any holes in that (other than Bush and Cheney are hunkered down for the duration)?

    Otherwise, what are we waiting for?

  3. Richard Smith

    For foreigners looking at the US transition the question about length is related to just how many positions are required.

    The U.S. is encumbered by a system of patronage that permeates its bureaucracy. More than 9,000 jobs – listed in the so-called “plum book” – must be filled by an incoming administration, not only major offices such as attorney-general, secretary of state and secretary of the treasury, but in some cases much more junior positions, including clerical staff.

    Among the many challenges facing the new administration of Barack Obama after Jan. 20, then, is the appointment of a deputy division director, low level waste management and decommissioning, in the Office of Nuclear Materials Safety and Safeguards. In Treasury, Mr. Obama must settle on an assayer (San Francisco) for the U.S. Mint.

    This arcane system hampers an administration’s effectiveness for as much as two years as those jobs are being filled. The numbers of political appointees may be small compared to its vast civilian bureaucracy, but the U.S. should still follow the lead of most other Western countries and professionalize the ranks of its bureaucracy at the lower levels.

    This measure would help, but they would not entirely eliminate the problem of a power vacuum in Washington. Two and a half months is too long. The U.S. needs to have its new president in office sooner. If the problem relates, as some suggest, to the logistics of staging the elaborate inauguration celebrations, then the ceremonial should come later, in the way that a coronation comes later. If the outmoded Electoral College system is to endure, then Mr. Obama should become president the moment the vote of the electors is announced. The Twentieth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution should be amended to allow for the oath of office to be administered promptly. The ceremonial of Inauguration Day could wait until Jan. 20.

    Americans like to think of themselves as citizens of a young country. It’s time they started, then, to behave like one by modernizing their democratic institutions.

  4. LogopolisMike

    While I certainly wish that the transition could take place faster, and I certainly think that due to modern technology, we should be able to speed it up again, one needs only to look back 8 years to show just how long it might take to figure out who actually won an election and show that the President-elect can very easily not be decided by November 15 or December 1 or whatever arbitrary new date we choose.

    It seems that the Electoral College and the entire system of selecting the President would need an overhaul before we get into moving up the date. Not that I’m arguing against that mind you…

  5. Joe Newberry

    To Don Sherfick above. Your idea was actually seriously considered by Woodrow Wilson in 1916. He worried that if he lost the election he could not speak with the country’s backing, particularly on matters of foreign policy. So he was going to appoint his opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, to Secretary of State, then resign along with the Vice President. Rules of succession at the time would have made Hughes the president. Wilson won, so we’ll never know how that would have worked out.

  6. Terry Walbert

    This is a though-provoking discussion of what must seem like a cumbersome system to much of the world. When you add in the now two-year campaign just to get the nomination, they probably wonder how we ever get any governing done.

    Richard Smith’s observation about patronage suggests that a president elect might need more than two months to get ready to govern, but that would never fly. However, why not have the cabinet members and other appointees start serving on January 20 as temporary appointments. Those needing Senate confirmation would still require confirmation within the first year.

  7. Sam

    One Nation Under Who?

    Although the inaguation of Obama will indicate the nation has moved on; despite some who say we have not made progress, I hope we can get back to “all the people” scenerio afterward. Yes. It is a big deal for African Americans. But most act like Obama in office is somehow going to bring more benefits to them just because they are African American. Think again. The minute there is a hint of that, the “majority of folks” who voted for him will also be the first to turn on him. I have a “wait-and-see” attitude about the newly-elected president (or should I say The Clintons again). When Hillary lost to Obama, you don’t think there was some back-door deal in the works long before “he” decided to appoint her to his cabinet. He is a figure-head – pure and simple. Clinton and her policies will be running the show – AGAIN! Let’s just hope “she” keeps our country safer than her husband did.

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