Skip to Main Content

Twentieth Amendment: About

Amendment XX: 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.

Why is the Twentieth Amendment Important?

If awards were given to constitutional amendments for quietly doing their job without generating litigation or public controversy, certainly the Twentieth Amendment would be a contender for that prize. Ratified in 1935, it has never been the subject of a Supreme Court decision and has rarely been interpreted by lower courts.

The Amendment has two principal sections. The first section fixes the start dates for the regular terms of members of the Senate and House of Representatives as January 3 of the year following their election and for President and Vice President as January 20.  Previously, under terms set in 1788 by the Confederation Congress, all of these terms began on March 4 following the election. The second section states that Congress shall commence a new session each year on January 3 unless it appoints another day. Previously, the Constitution, in Article I, Section 4, Clause 2, provided for annual sessions of Congress beginning on December 5 unless Congress set a different date. These two sections impact how Congress operates every year. Under them, each biennial Congress, which consists of Senators and Representatives whose terms begin in January of the same year plus Senators with continuing terms, has two regular sessions, one each year starting in January.

The remaining sections of the Amendment have never been used or were only used to ratify or implement it. Section 3 declares what happens if the President-Elect dies before taking office or if no one has qualified to become President when a new presidential term begins. Section 4 authorizes Congress to enact procedures for choosing a President or Vice President in the event that no candidate has received a majority of electoral votes for the office and any of the contenders dies before Congress has chosen among them. Two final Sections, 5 and 6, set the Amendment’s effective date and limit its ratification period.

The cycle of beginning sessions in January, with the first session of each Congress starting shortly after the election, and of ending sessions late in the year, seemed so natural that perhaps only historians remember that it only began in 1935 with the implementation of the Twentieth Amendment. Before that time, unless called into session earlier by the President, each Congress convened for its first session in December, thirteen months after its election. Even more bizarre, its second session began the following December, which was after the election of a new Congress, and could last no more than three months because the terms of its members ended in March. For obvious reasons, this second session became known as the “short” or “lame-duck” session.  

Congress’s peculiar original session schedule came about by happenstance. As originally ratified, the Constitution stated, “The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different day.” A December start for the annual congressional sessions would not have caused serious problems but for an unrelated act by the Confederation Congress. During the summer of 1788, the Constitution was ratified by the final few states needed to put the new government in place. In response, meeting during the following September, the Confederation Congress adopted a resolution fixing March 4, 1789, as the date “for commencing proceedings” under the new government. As a result, the terms of the first President, Vice President, Senators, and Representatives began on March 4, and because the Constitution states that those terms are to last for four, four, six, and two years, respectively, they would end on a future March 4.

Read together, the Clause stating that congressional sessions shall start in December and the resolution declaring that terms for the first President and members of Congress would begin in March created an anomaly. Each new Congress would not meet for its first regular session until thirteen months after its election and would convene for its second regular session a scant three months prior to the end of its term. Further, because the terms of a new President and new Congress began on the same day, unresolved presidential elections would be decided by the old Congress rather than the new one. Because the two provisions creating the situation were embedded in the Constitution—one directly and one indirectly—the schedule could only be changed by a constitutional amendment. Continue reading from Constitution Center

Link to The coming of the New Deal, 1933-1935 by Arthur Schlesinger Jr in the catalog
Link to Franklin D. Roosevelt : a political life by Robert Dallek in the catalog
Link to Three Days in January : Dwight Eisenhower's Final Mission by Bret Baier in the catalog
Link to Frank & Al : FDR, Al Smith, and the unlikely alliance that created the modern Democratic Party by Terry Golway in the catalog
Link to The Presidents and The Constitution edited by Ken Gormley in the catalog

Return to The American Government Resource Guide Series