Today we know Inauguration Day falls every four years on January 20, but for much of American history it was March 4, almost four months after election day. Herbert Hoover was the last and perhaps most unfortunate President to serve four months as a “lame duck.” What changed? The ratification of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution.
When the United States Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation in 1789, an unintended quirk resulted from the timing of the transition between the Confederation Congress and the new government — elections were to be held every two years in November, Congress was to meet annually in December, but the terms of the President and members of Congress started on March 4. That created the possibility — in fact, a likelihood — that a “lame duck” President or Congress would remain in power for almost 4 months after an election. To make matters worse, until well into the 20th century Congress met only from December to March unless the President called an emergency session, which meant newly elected members of Congress didn’t actually take their seat for 13 months after an election. So a Senator newly elected, for example, in November of 1800 didn’t take office until the next Congress opened in December of 1801.
The undesirability of this timing was immediately apparent, but any change would require a Constitutional amendment. Over the next 130 years, dozens of attempts were made to fix the problem, but all failed for various reasons. The midterm elections in 1922 proved to be the turning point. The Republican Party lost 7 seats in the Senate and 70 seats in the House, and one of the main issues during the campaign was an unpopular bill backed by President Harding to subsidize the shipping industry. During the “lame duck” session the defeated Republicans in the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of the shipping subsidy bill, though it was ultimately blocked in the Senate by a Democratic filibuster. Afterward, progressive Republican Senator George Norris made enacting a solution to the “lame duck” problem his personal priority.
Sen. Norris’s proposed amendment moved the opening of Congress to Jan. 3 — approximately two months after election day — and Presidential inaugurations to Jan. 20. (From our later perspective it is notable that almost everyone assumed that Congress would not meet between Election Day and the beginning of January, but since 1940, Congress has routinely met during the two month “lame duck” period.) Norris’s amendment bill was blocked by Republicans in the House that year despite passing by a wide margin in the Senate. Norris reintroduced his bill in every Congress until it finally passed on March 2, 1932, after Democrats had regained control of the House and finally put it up for a vote.
State legislatures quickly moved to approve the amendment, but ratification by three-fourths of the states wasn’t achieved until January 1933, too late to take effect for the 1932 election. On April 26, 1933, Florida became the 48th and final state to ratify the 20th Amendment, making it one of the few amendments to the Constitution ratified by all the states and the fastest to achieve that feat. The first Congress elected under the new amendment, in 1934, took their seats on January 3, 1935; the first Presidential election affected was 1936, but the earlier inauguration date in January 1937 was made unremarkable by Franklin Roosevelt’s landslide reelection victory.