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Twentieth Amendment

president presidential terms elect

The Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

Section 1. 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.

Section 2. 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.

Section 3. 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 accord-ingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.

Section 4. 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.

Section 5. Sections 1 and 2 shall take effect on the 15th day of October following the ratification of this article.

Section 6. 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 Twentieth Amendment was proposed on March 2, 1932, and ratified on January 23, 1933. The amendment moved the date on which new presidential and vice presidential terms begin as well as the date for beginning new congressional terms, ended the abbreviated congressional session that had formerly convened in even-numbered years, and fixed procedures for presidential succession if the president-elect dies before inauguration day.

Senator GEORGE W. NORRIS of Nebraska was the primary sponsor of the Twentieth Amendment. He was concerned about the gap between the holding of federal elections on the first Tuesday in November and the installation of the newly elected officials in March of the following year. The Constitution specified that the presidential and vice presidential terms should begin on March 4 and the congressional terms on March 3. As a result, senators and representatives who were defeated in November could remain in office and vote on measures for four months, thereby earning the name "lame ducks."

The Constitution also required Congress to hold an abbreviated session in even-numbered years from early December until the next Congress convened in March. These "lame duck" sessions were generally unproductive, as the members engaged in virtually no legislative activity. At the same time, however, these sessions provided the opportunity for defeated members to vote on measures without any accountability to the voters.

Under the Twentieth Amendment, the presidential and vice presidential terms begin on January 20, and congressional terms begin on January 3. The lame duck session requirement was also abolished.

Another section of the amendment deals with presidential succession should the president-elect die before taking office. The amendment provides that the vice president elect shall become the president-elect and take office on January 20; the amendment also authorizes Congress to legislate on other matters of presidential succession.


Nagle, John Copeland. 1997. "A Twentieth Amendment Parable." New York University Law Review 72 (May).

Neustadt, Richard E. 2001. "The Contemporary Presidency: The Presidential 'Hundred Days': An Overview." Presidential Studies Quarterly 31 (March).

Twenty-Fifth Amendment - Further Readings [next] [back] Twelfth Amendment - Further Readings

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