20th Amendment

The 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution concerns term limits of presidents and vice presidents of the United States, as well as those of members of Congress. Specifically, the 20th Amendment moved the beginning of the terms of the president and vice president from March 4 to January 20. It also moved the beginning of the terms of members of Congress from March 4 to January 3. The 20th Amendment also advises what to do in the event there is no president-elect. To explore this concept, consider the following 20th Amendment definition.

Definition of 20th Amendment


  1. The amendment to the Constitution that sets the term limits for presidents, vice presidents, and members of Congress.


January 23, 1933

What is the 20th Amendment

The Constitution’s 20th Amendment effectively moved the beginning and ending of the terms of the president and vice president from March 4 to January 20, and the terms of members of Congress from March 4 to January 3. For example, the 20th Amendment states:

“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, 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 same goes for members of Congress, whose terms end at 12:00 p.m. on January 3 during the year in which their terms end. The 20th Amendment also provides that Congress is to assemble at least once a year and that, when members do assemble, they do so at 12:00 p.m. on January 3. The only way this can be changed is if a law is passed allowing them to hold Congress on a different day.

If, by chance, the president elect dies before he can begin his term, then the 20th Amendment provides for the vice president elect to become president. Similarly, if a president is not chosen before the term is to begin, or if the president elect is deemed unfit to serve as president, then the vice president is to act as president until a qualified president is chosen.

In that case, Congress can then choose the president after providing legitimate reasons as to why neither the president elect nor the vice president elect is, in its opinion, suitable for the job. The individual whom Congress chooses to act as president or vice president is to do so until the next true president or vice president is elected.

History of the 20th Amendment

The history of the 20th Amendment is based on a simple concept, which was to maximize efficiency. In September of 1788, after the final nine states had ratified the Constitution, Congress set the date of March 4 as the date when newly elected officials would begin their terms of office. This was soon discovered to be an issue, however, when the new Congress and presidential administration did not begin in their official capacities until April.

This meant that there was a long, four-month period between the election of a new president and that president’s inauguration. During that time, no work could be done, and the acting president effectively became a lame duck. A lame duck is an elected official who has only a short time left in office, and whose successor has already been selected. Problems often arise when a lame duck is in office. This is due to the fact that, since a lame duck has nothing to worry about because his term is almost up and his replacement has already been chosen, he can effectively make whatever decisions he wants and suffer little to no consequence.

For instance, a lame duck could issue a controversial pardon, or sign an executive order without fear of repercussion. While this four-month, lame duck period was problematic enough in the office of the president, it was arguably worse for members of Congress. Due to the gap in scheduling dates between when members of Congress were elected and when they could actually start their jobs, some members did not get to start working until more than a year after they were elected.

This longer lame duck period may have once had a purpose at the end of the 18th century. Back then, newly elected officials might have needed several months to get their affairs in order before making a lengthy trip from their home to the nation’s capital. However, in the 19th century – the early days of the history of the 20th Amendment – all this lengthy period did was serve to gum up the works of modern government, slowing or even halting the government’s functionality entirely.

Even worse, having a simultaneous lame duck Congress and presidential administration meant that, if a national crisis arose, the country was unprepared to respond in a timely fashion. This would have been especially tragic if the new president, vice president, and congressional members had already been chosen, and were simply waiting for their terms to begin so they could finally be given the opportunity to do their jobs.

Two presidents in the history of the 20th Amendment knew this pain all too well: Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both presidents had to wait four months after being elected before they and the incoming members of Congress could tackle some of the big problems affecting the country during those times. For Lincoln, it was the secession of the Southern states, and for Roosevelt, the Great Depression.

This is why the passage of the 20th Amendment changed everything. For example, the 20th Amendment reset the end dates of officials’ terms, closing those previously lengthy gaps, and incoming officials could get down to business shortly after being elected. Lame ducks were also given less time in office to muck things up before their terms had officially ended.

Effects of the 20th Amendment

The effects of the 20th Amendment were welcome and positive. For example, the 20th Amendment reduced the lame duck period for the president and vice president by about 6 weeks, and removed it entirely from Congress. It also stated that, in the event that the Electoral College fails to elect the next president or vice president, then the incoming Congress will do so, rather than the outgoing one. This helps move the old folks out faster so the new folks can move in.

The effects of the 20th Amendment were especially appreciated when, 23 days after it was adopted, an assassination attempt was made on President-elect Roosevelt’s life. Roosevelt was not injured, however if he had died in the attack, then the 20th Amendment provided for Vice President-elect John N. Garner to serve in his place. Roosevelt and Garner were the first President and Vice President to be elected after the adoption of the new Amendment.

One of the more interesting effects of the 20th Amendment involves Congress directly. Because of the way the terms fell, the 73rd Congress was not required to meet until January 3, 1934 – nearly a year after Roosevelt and Garner were inaugurated, on March 4, 1933. As a result, the president proclaimed that a special 100-day session of Congress was to convene from March 9 to June 16, 1933.

20th Amendment Example Involving President Obama

The 20th Amendment is a technical and straightforward one, so there do not exist many Court cases, especially at the Supreme Court level, that reference the Amendment. However, in 2009, attorney Mario Apuzzo of New Jersey filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of four individuals who wished to challenge then President Barack Obama’s eligibility to be president. In addition to naming Obama as a defendant in the action, the plaintiffs also sued Congress as a singular entity, as well as its parts – the Senate and the House of Representatives – individually. Also named were former Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The defendants’ reason for suing Congress was that Congress had failed to uphold the constitution by making sure that Obama was qualified to become president before approving the vote of the Electoral College that ultimately won him the election. While several lawsuits were filed challenging Obama’s presidential eligibility, this one stands out for its direct reference to the 20th Amendment. This suit specifically stated that the defendants “violated” the 20th Amendment by failing to ensure that Obama first met the requirements that would determine his eligibility to hold office.

There were several reasons as to why Obama’s eligibility was such a hot topic of debate. For one, many believed that Obama was not born in Hawaii but in Kenya, and that his mother was too young to make him an American citizen at the time of his birth. Other details from Obama’s past added fuel to the fire, such as his family moving to Indonesia when he was a child, and contradictory reports from Obama’s family members on his actual birthplace.

Several of the cases that were brought against Obama never even made it to the hearing stage, with claims being denied or outright dismissed. Others remained active at the lower court levels, despite being denied hearings by the U.S. Supreme Court. This case brought by Apuzzo was yet another case that was denied by the District Court, with the Court citing a “lack of subject matter jurisdiction” as its reasoning.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Congress – The legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Electoral College – A body of electors chosen by the voters in each state to elect the president and vice president of the U.S.
  • Inauguration – A formal ceremony that marks the beginning of a public official’s term in office.
  • Plaintiff A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Ratify – Give formal consent to something, thereby making it officially valid.