WASHINGTON (WHTM) — On Jan. 3, 1937, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States, left the White House, traveled to the U.S. Capitol, took the oath of office, and began his second term. In doing so, he became the first president to be inaugurated in January, thanks to the 20th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
When the Constitution was ratified in 1788, the Confederation Congress was responsible for setting when the transition to the new federal government would take place. They selected March 4, 1789, which would also be the day to inaugurate the first president, George Washington. And for over a century, that would be Inauguration Day.
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With elections in November, that meant a roughly four-month wait for a change of leadership. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, that was a necessary evil. Roads were few, far between, and poorly maintained. It actually could take weeks, or months, for politicians to make their way from western states and territories to the nation’s capital. (In fact, George Washington’s first inauguration was delayed until April because of unusually bad winter weather.)
But infrastructure was on its way. Improved roads, canals, and railroads drastically cut travel times. With the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869, it was possible to travel from one coast to the other in less than a week.
With the need for a long delay falling to the march of technology, the long “lame duck” administrations became less politically tolerable. In 1923 Sen. George Norris of Nebraska authored a resolution that would become the foundation for the 20th Amendment.
The amendment was ratified on Jan. 23, 1933, just a little too late for Roosevelt’s first inauguration on March 4, 1933.
The 20th Amendment changed more than the inauguration date for the president. Article One, Section Four, Clause Two of the Constitution stated, “The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December,” which basically meant they would frequently be meeting for lame-duck sessions. Section Two of the 20th Amendment changed the first meeting of the new Congress to Jan. 3.
Section Three of the 20th Amendment fixed a problem which, fortunately, has never come up. What happens if a president-elect dies before he or she becomes president? The answer — “the Vice President elect shall become President.” This nips in the bud any “The office should go to the person who came in second” arguments.
Section Four allows Congress to decide by law who may become president beyond the vice-president. Using this authority, in 1947, Congress adopted the Presidential Succession Act. This established the following order of succession beyond the vice-president: the speaker of the House, followed by the president pro tempore of the Senate, and then the department heads in the order in which each department had been established. This has never had to be used, but it’s nice to know it’s ready, just in case.
Here is the 20th amendment in its entirety:
The terms of the President and the 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.
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.
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.
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.
Sections 1 and 2 shall take effect on the 15th day of October following the ratification of this article.
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.