The Twentieth Amendment, which determines presidential succession and term dates was ratified on January 23, 1933. It is a fairly uncontroversial and straightforward amendment and has never been the subject of a Supreme Court case.
So, why does the Twentieth Amendment exist? There are two main sections that impact our governance.
The first section of the Twentieth Amendment sets the start and end dates for the president, vice president, and House and Senate in January. In prior years, these terms traditionally began in March. Improvements in infrastructure and technology made it possible for incoming presidents to get their affairs in order (and travel!) much faster than ever before. A four month cushion of time from Election Day to Inauguration Day was no longer necessary. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president to be inaugurated on the new date, January 20, 1937.
The second section calls for Congress to begin a new session in early January every year. Previously, this date was in December. Unless called into session earlier by the president, newly elected Congress members would wait an entire 13 months to convene after their election. The old order also caused “lame-duck” sessions, in which out-going representatives would be called into session after being defeated, but before their term was over.
Other sections of the amendment attempted to close loopholes in presidential and vice presidential succession, but these issues weren’t fully resolved until the 1960s with the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.
Below is a collection of resources on the Twentieth Amendment and what it does. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:
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 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.
Selected online resources on the Twentieth Amendment:
The National Constitution Center offers introductory essays by top legal scholars that explain the meaning of the Twentieth Amendment and its relation to presidential transitions and lame-duck sessions.
National Archives: “Amending America: The 20th Amendment, January 20, and Presidential Inaugurations”
Prior to the Twentieth Amendment, U.S. presidents were usually inaugurated in March. So why was Inauguration Day changed to January 20th? Find out why at the Reagan Library Education Blog.
Congress.gov provides historical background on the Twentieth Amendment. Quotes from a Senate Committee on the Judiciary report explain the several reasons that Congress passed the amendment.
*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on the Twentieth Amendment, its history, ore presidential succession and would like your work included here, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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