What’s Taking So Long? On the Gap Between Election Day and the Inauguration

By Judith E. Schaeffer, Vice President, Constitutional Accountability Center

Is it just me, or does Election Day — November 4, 2008 — feel like a geologic era ago? (And, as I write this, we are still four days away from the Inauguration.) Well, imagine what the period between Election Day and Inauguration Day must have felt like before the ratification of the 20th Amendment in 1933. Back then, the new President was not sworn in until March 4, four months after Election Day. That makes our modern transition period seem like, well, just a brief moment in time.

In the early days of our country, it made sense to give the new administration several months in which to take office. Election returns could hardly be gathered with the speed in which they are now (even if recounts might seem to take an eternity), and travel by horse and buggy took quite a bit longer as well. But by the 20th Century, there was no reason to retain the four-month gap, and so Congress proposed, and the States duly ratified, the 20th Amendment, which fixed the start of a President’s term at noon on January 20th. (The Amendment also shortened the period of time in which Representatives and Senators would serve as “lame ducks” by mandating that the Congress convene in January.)

Some question, however, whether even the shorter interval between Election Day and Inauguration Day created by the 20th Amendment is still too long. Now, for example, with our country in a deep financial crisis, with the Middle East in renewed turmoil, and with the approval ratings of our current President at record lows, would our country have been better off if the President elected in early November could have taken office sooner than January 20th? Given the important decisions that must be made before a new administration can effectively govern, including the selection, vetting, and nomination of members of the Cabinet, is it even practical to think that there could be a shorter transition time?

These very questions are being debated between Constitutional scholars Sandy Levinson and Jack Balkin (as well as numerous commenters) at Balkinizaton. We encourage you to take a look at their discussion, posted here, here, here, here, and here. Whatever you may think of a two-month transition, at least we can thank the 20th Amendment that it’s not twice as long.