Amdt20.S6.2 Twentieth Amendment: Doctrine and Practice

Twentieth Amendment:

The terms of the President and 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.

The exact term of the President and Vice President was fixed by the Constitution, Art. II, § 1, cl. 1, at 4 years, and became actually effective, by resolution of the Continental Congress, on the 4th of March 1789. Since this amendment was declared adopted on February 6, 1933, § 1 in effect shortened, by the interval between January 20 and March 4, 1937, the terms of the President and Vice President elected in 1932.

Similarly, it shortened, by the intervals between January 3 and March 4, the terms of Senators elected for terms ending March 4, 1935, 1937, and 1939; and thus temporarily modified the Seventeenth Amendment, fixing the terms of Senators at 6 years. It also shortened the terms of Representatives elected to the Seventy-third Congress, by the interval between January 3 and March 4, 1935, and temporarily modified Article I, § 2, clause 1, fixing the terms of Representatives at 2 years.

Section 1 further modifies the Twelfth Amendment in its reference to March 4 as the date by which the House must exercise its choice of a President.

Section 2 supersedes clause 2 of § 4 of Article I. The setting of an exact hour for meeting constitutes a recognition of the long practice of Congress, which in 1867 was for the first time enacted into permanent law,1 only to be repealed in 1871.2

When the 3d of January fell on Sunday (in 1937), Congress did by law appoint a different day for its assemblage.3

Pursuant to the authority conferred upon it by § 3 of this amendment, Congress shaped the Presidential Succession Act of 19484 to meet the situation which would arise from the failure of both President elect and Vice President elect to qualify on or before the time fixed for the beginning of the new Presidential term.

Footnotes

  1.  Jump to essay-1Ch. 10, 14 Stat. 378.
  2.  Jump to essay-2Ch. 21, § 30, 17 Stat. 12. See 1 A. Hinds’ Precedents of the House of Representatives § 11 (1907).
  3.  Jump to essay-3Ch. 713, 49 Stat. 1826.
  4.  Jump to essay-4Ch. 644, 62 Stat. 672, as amended, 3 U.S.C. § 19. See also the discussion of Presidential Succession under the Twenty-fifth Amendment, infra.