What is so important about the 20th Amendment to the United States Constitution? At a brief glance, it may not seem all that significant because it basically changes the date of the presidential inauguration from March 4 to January 20. Since the presidential elections are held in November, that means there are several months, referred to as “lame-duck,” where there is a lull between the president and politicians leaving office and the newly elected take over.
The four-months’ time frame was needed back when George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were presidents. Those extra weeks allowed new presidents to pack and move their families and households. Unlike today, they didn’t have vehicles and airplanes to assist them and needed the time to travel by horse and buggy.
The Confederation Congress chose the March 4 date in 1789 to be the day power would transfer to the newly elected officials. From John Adams to Franklin Roosevelt, all of the inaugurations took place on March 4, and a few times on March 5 until the Lame Duck Amendment was ratified by Congress on January 3, 1933.
While the delay was needed to give presidents time to organize the move and prepare for a new life, it wasn’t always a good thing. Lincoln, for instance, couldn’t take office until March 4, 1861, meanwhile during James Buchanan’s lame duck period, tension across the nation was escalating between the North and the South. Just a month after the November election, South Carolina seceded from the Union on Dec. 20, 1860 and by the time Lincoln was able to take office a lot of the South had already seceded as well.
Some presidents have been able to take advantage of the transitional phase, using it to further bills, grant last-minute pardons, and other legislation. Adams, for example, held his “midnight appointments” to try and fill as may judgeships as he could before his term ended and Thomas Jefferson took his place. However, his efforts were thwarted when James Madison, who was serving as Jefferson’s Secretary of state, did not deliver the commission for several of the appointments. One such choice that went undelivered was William Marbury for Justice of the Peace of the District of Columbia. This caused such an uproar that it went to the Supreme Court in the Marbury v. Madison decision.
The 2020 presidential election is fast approaching and Congress is trying to figure out how to balance the budget. The Republicans are pushing for a stopgap bill that would provide government funding throughout the rest of the year, but the Democrats are wondering if it wouldn’t be better to wait so that if they get more control after the elections then they would be able to pass more items on their agenda. This, however, would mean that any lame duck politicians would not be able to weigh in on bills and legislation. It would also mean there would be a government shutdown in October, since Congress has until September 30 to make a decision and pass appropriate bills.