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U.S. News
20: Terms of office for president and Congress

Wednesday, November 27, 2002


The Constitution was adopted at a time when it took weeks or even months for members of Congress to get from the districts that elected them to the seat of federal government on the banks of the Potomac. By 1933, that delay had been shortened. Railroads pulled millions across the continent. Passenger airlines were coming into existence. The automobile had displaced the horse.

Yet, the terms of office for the president and members of the Congress still did not begin until March, nearly four months after election day. "Experience shows that this brings about a very undesirable legislative condition," said a report by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. To resolve the problem, the 20th Amendment changed the date of presidential inauguration to Jan. 20, and ordered Congress to convene on the third day of January.

It is in early January, then, that new members of Congress, such as Melissa Hart, a Republican from Pittsburgh's suburbs, are sworn in. Hart's 19th-century predecessors needed as much as a week to get by horse or carriage from the hills of Western Pennsylvania to the District of Columbia. Today, she travels over a federally financed interstate and makes it in four hours.

20th Amendment

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, of if the President elect 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.

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.

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