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Should Inauguration Day Be Moved Up?

[ Posted Tuesday, November 25th, 2008 – 18:28 UTC ]

Deep into the interregnum (interpresidentum?... interpresidium?) between the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration seems to be a good time to ask: Does this make sense anymore? Why does America wait two-and-a-half months between when we elect our leaders and when we actually let them enter office? And does it make sense to change it?

A brief bit of history is in order, to understand how we got here. Our Constitution was written and ratified when the fastest way to get around was by horse. Or perhaps by sailing vessel, depending on where you wanted to go. To say that we've come a long way from colonial times is a vast understatement. Even if our new president or vice president had to get to Washington, D.C. from Alaska (for instance), he or she could still make the journey in a few days, at the very most (allowing time for bad weather).

The Constitution originally set March 4th as Inauguration Day. Except for minor changes (moving it a day when it fell on a Sunday), and vice presidents being sworn in upon the death of a president (which can happen at any time during the year), all inaugurations happened on the fourth of March up until 1933. Since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inauguration, however, the date was moved up to January 20th, where it has been ever since.

This all changed due to Senator George Norris of Nebraska. Senator Norris was from the Progressive wing of the Republican Party (in 1932, this was not a contradiction in terms, it should be noted), and championed all sorts of government reforms (such as the unique "unicameral" one-house legislature in his home state). He wrote what became the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution -- known at the time as the "Norris Lame Duck Amendment." His primary reason for doing so wasn't the president's inauguration date, but rather the terms of Congress. The Constitution originally mandated that Congress meet at least once in December, after Election Day (the term "lame duck" is actually almost as old as our government). The outgoing Congress then had at least three months to cause mischief, while the newly-elected Congress cooled its collective heels waiting to be sworn in. In 1932 this became a bigger problem than usual (since the economy was collapsing all around them) and waiting four months for newly elected officials to take office seemed an enormous waste of time.

Is this starting to sound familiar? Relevant in today's world, perhaps?

Senator Norris proposed the Twentieth Amendment on March 2, 1932. In a blindingly-fast time (as these things are measured), it was ratified by the minimum number of states on January 23, 1933. It didn't take effect until later that year, meaning it was too late for F.D.R.'s first swearing-in, so January 20th, 1937 was the first time everybody got to freeze their fannies off in Washington's January weather while watching the ceremony.

It took a Constitutional amendment because moving the dates of the new terms (both presidential and congressional) meant a subsequent shortening of the current terms when it was ratified. In other words, to change it again, another amendment would be necessary -- which is never an easy task.

But putting aside for the sake of argument how hard it would be, the real question is should it be changed? This is the usual point in the conversation that parliamentary systems (such as Britain's) are brought up. In a parliamentary system, the election happens, and the next day the old guy's out and the new guy is in. But you can't really compare the two, since in the British Parliament, there are people in the opposition party who are "shadow" ministers ("ministers" being the equivalent of our cabinet members), ready to take over the reins of the various governmental departments on a moment's notice from the party currently in office. We don't have that here, which is why the comparison can't be considered a valid one.

We see that even now. Barack Obama is currently putting together his administration, and there are a lot of important jobs to fill. Vetting candidates for these jobs takes time. So it would simply be unrealistic to have an election on November 4th and have the new folks in office on November 5th.

Besides, our elections don't always go smoothly. Remember 2000? Take a look at the Minnesota Senate race being recounted this year for a good reason why at least some time needs to occur between Election Day and Inauguration Day.

So even if you think moving the date up a bit is a good idea -- because when the country is in crisis and waiting is just going to make things worse (as many are talking about this year) -- there's a limit as to how far up it could even move. Congress, by the same Amendment XX, takes office January 3rd. It's hard to see how inaugurating the president could be moved up much before then. Which means it becomes a matter of only a few weeks, from January 20th to perhaps January 3rd or 4th.

And that, to me, doesn't sound like enough of a change to warrant a new constitutional amendment, even if ratification of such an amendment was a sure thing (which it isn't). Meaning that the idea of shrinking the amount of time between Election Day and Inauguration Day is probably not going to happen any time soon.


-- Chris Weigant


2 Comments on “Should Inauguration Day Be Moved Up?”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    While it may not make a lot of sense for a constitutional amendment to move up Inauguration Day, we may already be witnessing a de facto changing of the guard based on necessity and the fact that the current administration has been treading water in many respects for months least.

    The President-elect is making progress - I guess - in putting together a stellar cabinet and his Vice President may take his seat in the new Senate for a short while to make sure things progress on a fast track on that front, too.

    Besides, the situation we find ourselves in - between administrations - after eight years of almost complete incompetence is not exactly par for the course. And, hopefully, there won't be a repetition of this anytime soon, if ever.

  2. [2] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    While I don't think we need an amendment, one thing Bush COULD do is go ahead and nominate Obama's selections so Congress could get them confirmed before Christmas. No doubt the GOP would scream about presumption, but it would put the incoming administration in place NOW, while the crisis is on.

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