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Twentieth Amendment

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noun

an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1933, that abolished the December to March session of those Congressmen defeated for reelection in November.

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Also called Lame Duck Amendment.
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021

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What is the Twentieth Amendment?

The Twentieth Amendment is an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that sets the inauguration date for new presidential terms and the date for new sessions of Congress. It also gives Congress the power to choose the president and vice president in case of death during an election or failure to gain a majority of electoral votes.

An amendment is a change or addition to the Constitution of the United States, the supreme law of the land. There have been 27 amendments to the Constitution in the history of the United States.

The Twentieth Amendment (sometimes spelled 20th Amendment or referred to as Amendment XX) was added to the Constitution in 1933. It has six sections.

Section 1 specifically says that “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.” Prior to the Twentieth Amendment, these dates were set for March 4.

This change was made in part to shorten the time that outgoing presidents and members of Congress (those not serving another term) would continue to hold office as “lame ducks.” For this reason, the Twentieth Amendment is sometimes called the Lame Duck Amendment.

Section 2 sets the first session of Congress to also occur on January 3.

Section 3 states that if the president-elect dies before taking office, the vice president-elect becomes president. It also gives Congress the power to decide to choose the acting president if the Electoral College vote is not resolved by January 20.

Section 4 states that Congress has the power to decide what to do if a candidate dies before they have chosen a president and vice president in cases when no candidate achieves an Electoral College majority.

Sections 5 and 6 simply deal with procedural issues related to the amendment’s passing and ratification.

Why is the Twentieth Amendment important?

The Twentieth Amendment was passed by Congress on March 2, 1932, and ratified on January 23, 1933. The amendment was authored by Senator George W. Norris, who was motivated by an attempt by President Warren Harding to push a bill through a lame duck session of Congress. Norris began trying to get the amendment passed in 1922 and proposed it several times before it was eventually approved.

Prior to the Twentieth Amendment, the Constitution required Congress to end its session on March 4 and begin a new session in December, unless called to assemble by the president. This meant that members of Congress who lost re-election in November would still have power for four months and incoming members of Congress would not get to begin their terms until 13 months after being elected.

There had been many attempts to change these dates, but they had always failed to pass in the House of Representatives (whose members, due to their short terms, could potentially take advantage of lame duck sessions of Congress).

The Twentieth Amendment also shortened the span between a president’s election and inauguration, moving Inauguration Day to January 20. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president whose inauguration took place on this day when he began his second term in 1937. (The date can be moved to January 21 if January 20 falls on a Sunday.)

Sections 3 and 4 of the amendment have never been used. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment would further establish the rules of presidential succession.

Did you know ... ?

Adding amendments to the Constitution is a big deal, and can be controversial. But the Twentieth Amendment may be the least controversial of them all. It has never been involved in a Supreme Court case and it holds the record for having been the amendment to be most quickly approved by all of the states (48 at the time).

What are real-life examples of the Twentieth Amendment?

The full text of the Twentieth Amendment is available on the National Archives site. It’s not one of the most well-known amendments—it’s perhaps most associated with the change of the date of the presidential inauguration to January 20.

 

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

The Twentieth Amendment sets January 20 as the date that the president and members of Congress begin their terms.

How to use Twentieth Amendment in a sentence

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