Why is Inauguration Day on January 20?

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles E. Hughes, Herbert Hoover, James Roosevelt_344803

President Franklin D. Roosevelt takes the oath of office from Chief Justice Charles E. Hughes at the inauguration, March 4, 1933. At right is Herbert Hoover and behind the president is his eldest son James Roosevelt. (AP Photo)

(MEDIA GENERAL) – On Jan. 23, 1933, Congress passed the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which moved the president-elect’s Inauguration Day from March 4 to January 20.

But, why?

The answer is fairly simple and found in the Amendment’s nickname: The “Lame Duck Amendment.”

The 20th Amendment was crafted to cut down the time “lame duck” lawmakers held office following Election Day. Lame duck lawmakers are those that lost re-election or chose to step down from their post following their term. However, during the period of time between Election Day and Inauguration Day, lame duck lawmakers still hold their authority.

Two notable times in history, this “lame duck” period proved problematic for the country.

The nation already was near a tipping point prior to the 1860 election as the North and South split over abolishing slavery. When Lincoln was announced the winner, Southern states quickly moved to build up armories and planned to secede from the Union. Days ticked by as the South worked on their secession plan while Lincoln waited to take office. Lincoln was sworn in on March 4, and by April, the Civil War was underway. Many historians credit the lame duck period as a culprit for the start of the war.

Congress did not act on the lame duck period until it struck again during The Great Depression. With the depression raging on, lawmakers sat in a stalemate, unable to compromise between outgoing President Herbert Hoover and the new direction established by President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New reforms could have been passed sooner if not for the lame duck period.

There’s a need for a gap between Election Day and Inauguration Day; votes need to be counted — and in some cases, recounted. And officials need time to put together to build their teams. But in 1933 Congress decided to tighten the lame duck period.

The Amendment kicked in following the next election, moving the president’s inauguration from March 4 to January 20, and moving the start of Congressional lawmakers’ terms from March 4 to January 4.

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