- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2000

If Vice President Al Gore and his Democratic supporters are disturbed about the short timetable to contest the presidential election results, they have nobody to blame but their Democratic predecessors in Congress. Indeed, it was a coalition of Democrats and liberal Republicans who brought about the 12th Amendment to the Constitution which, among other provisions, moved the presidential Inauguration date from March 4 to Jan. 20.

The original Constitution set no specific date for the Inauguration of the president. That was left up to Congress first, the Confederation Congress operating under the nation's first form of government, the Articles of Confederation, which served as a transition body during the period of ratification by the states; and second, by Congress thereafter operating under the Constitution, beginning in 1789.

Although the first president, George Washington, was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, subsequent Inaugurations fell on March 4 ample time for the election process to unfold fully, after general elections in November, the naming of electors by January, and the actual voting by electors for president and vice president in February. The March 4 date was carved in stone in the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1804. Congress, in keeping with the March 4 benchmark, ran from March 4 to March 3 during the two-odd-year life of each body (for example, the 10th Congress ran from March 4, 1807, to March 3, 1809).

Of course, that four-month period between the election of the president, every member of the House of Representatives, and one-third of the Senate was designed for a nation that was still largely rural and without transportation advances. But, as time passed and technological improvements were made, some reformers also felt the interregnum was simply too long, allowing lame-duck presidents and Congresses to ply their trade from early November to the beginning of March even though they had been ousted from office.

Enter independent Republican Sen. George W. Norris of Nebraska who, beginning in 1923, tried to convince his colleagues in Congress to pass his constitutional amendment, the 20th, that would change both the date when a new president and new Congress would enter office mid- to late-January for a presidential Inauguration, Jan. 2 or Jan. 3 for a new Congress. It took six tries for Norris to succeed, with his amendment passing the Senate each time, but failing in the House until 1932. Because the Democrats controlled the House in the 72nd Congress (1931-1933) for the first time since 1917, Norris was able to get both houses to approve his measure by the necessary two-thirds vote and send it on to the states on March 3, 1932.

Norris and Democratic leaders hailed the measure as a "great step toward placing the control of our government in the hands of the chosen representatives of the American people." With that liberalizing mindset, states rushed to approve the amendment, with Virginia the first and four states, all on Jan. 23, 1933, the ones to bring about the necessary three-fourths requirement for bringing it into effect. Not surprisingly, liberals had ample political fodder during the entire ratification process to find support for their view. For Republican Herbert Hoover was in the White House, with the country in dire economic straits during these Great Depression times. Hoover was almost certain to be defeated in November 1932, yet would still hold power until the following March 4.

To be sure, from the time the amendment became effective with Franklin D. Roosevelt's second Inauguration on Jan. 20, 1937 to the present, the 20th Amendment's more rigid timeline has not been an object of concern, let alone attack, by conservatives. The irony is that the 12th Amendment, written after the contested election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1800, may have provided no matter the horse-and-buggy environment of its origins the kind of ample time frame for contested elections to be resolved that is missing in today's operative procedure. And that leeway in time might well have been far more important than getting sitting presidents and Congresses out of Washington and getting new ones in.

Oh, and I almost forgot the final twist to the story: Florida was the very last state to approve the 20th Amendment on April 26, 1933.

Thomas V. DiBacco, professor emeritus at American University, lives in Palm Beach.

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