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The Amendments Series: The Twentieth Amendment

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What would you think if I told you that for over a century, Congress had to wait thirteen months after being elected before they could convene for the first time. This means that for over a century, our federal Congress was not active but every other year.

Well, that’s what I’m telling you.

What does that make you think about how important and powerful our federal government used to be?

John Locke, in his writings on the job and relationship between the legislative and executive branch, believed that the legislative branch did not need to always be operational. Why would the legislative branch need to be making laws all the time when their only real job was to make laws to protect us and or private property from each other. There’s only so many laws you need to do that.

The executive, however, was supposed to always be operational because what good would the laws be if there wasn’t a steady and lasting force to execute them?

It constantly amazes me how much Americans want Congress to “do things”. Guess what? Usually when Congress “does something”, it means making law. Do we really want a legislature that’s constantly making new laws, expanding government power and increasing government bureaucracy in order to implement all the new laws?

Apparently we do.

But, that’s not how Americans saw the federal government for the first half of our existence. So much so that the newly elected legislature literally didn’t meet to write laws for over a year after being elected, leaving less than a year to do all the lawmaking for the country before the next elections rolled around.

Crazy right?

The Twentieth Amendment

The Twentieth Amendment is a mouthful…or eyeful since you’re reading it, so I won’t be explaining it all today. My goal with this post is simple. I intend to explain how the dates and sessions of Congress changed–in order to emphasize how much our expectations of Congress have changed.

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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 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 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.Twentieth Amendment

Twentieth Amendment

According to the original Constitution, “The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different day.” The Confederation Congress, when finishing up the ratification process of the Constitution in the Summer of 1788, adopted a resolution fixing March 4, 1789 as the start terms for the first President, Vice President, Senators, and Representatives.

Ok, follow me here. This is when things get hairy.

The Constitution states that the terms of Congress and the President are to last for four, four, six and two years, On other words, once the term starts, it must end exactly four, four, six or two years from when it starts, which was established to be March 4th.

This means that, in November, an entirely new Congress is elected but won’t start their term until March 4th of the following year. However, if you remember, the Constitution established that Congress will assemble for its first session in December of every year.

So, this means, a new Congress is elected in November but can’t start its first term until March of the next year, leaving the old Congress to meet from December to March, a three month lame duck session. At least, this is what this three month Congress was called until 1935 and the Twentieth Amendment.

white and grey voting day sign

Now, the new Congress, elected in November, started their term in March but they won’t actually assemble for their first session until December, the December thirteenth months after they were first elected.

So, yes, you read that right. Until 1935, our US Congress wouldn’t meet for almost ten months out of every two years. Yup. Following an election year, from March 4 until the first Monday in December, the federal Congress did nothing. Notice the language in the Constitution, it doesn’t say that Congress must meet consistently every year start on the first Monday in December, it merely says that Congress must assemble at least once a year. That’s it. It can assemble for a few days or months, but it only need do so once in a year. Why? Because Congress only has so much it can do.

Truly. How many laws can a Congress, with very limited powers per Article One, Section Eight, actually write? It’s not necessary for the federal government to be making new laws all the time.

While there were other issues (ones I’ll address in future articles) that led to the Twentieth Amendment, this awkward situation and the lame duck Congress–able to legislate with little thought of their constituents–caused states and citizens to begin calling for an amendment to rectify the situation. The solution had to be an amendment since the two provisions creating the situation where embedded in the Constitution itself.

It took years to get the amendment out of Congress, because of the lame duck Congress, but it finally made it out of Congress on March 8, 1932 and was rafted by all forty-eight states by then end of 1933, making it one of the few amendments ratified by all the states and one of the fastest to achieve this feat.

There’s much to the amendment that I’ll unpack in time, but the key point for today’s post is that the amendment established two things for Congress. First, January 3rd starts the terms for both the House and Senate. Second, Congress shall commence a new session each year on January 3rd. This means that when Congress is elected in November, the newly elected members start their term that following January 3, as well as start their first Congressional session that same day.

Aside from providing basic knowledge for you, I hope this article also opens your eyes to the reality that, for over a century our country survived, even thrived, with a Congress that didn’t meet for almost ten months out of every two year term.

We’ve grossly overblown our expectations for Congress, so much so that most Americans today would likely be horrified that every new Congress wouldn’t convene for thirteen months after being elected.

While the Twentieth Amendment was likely needed for practical reasons, it also shows us that we don’t need a government that constantly writes new laws. We simply need a government that does what its job description empowers it to do and no more. And frankly, its job description, the Constitution, doesn’t give it enough power to warrant always being in session and writing laws.

Perhaps that type of behavior is more a consequence of increasing demand.

And friends, we’re the ones that determine that demand.

The Liberty Belle

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