Donald Ritchie: Why Does the Transition Take So Long?





[Donald Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, Our Constitution, and The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion, looks at this lag in historical perspective. Ritchie, who has been Associate Historian of the United States Senate for more than three decades, explains why a President-elect may need this time prepare to take over.]

Many Americans, and the rest of the world, wonder why so much time elapses between the U.S. presidential election in November and the inauguration on January 20. Why not reform the system and reduce the interval? The answer is we did reform it–the interregnum used to last twice as long.

Under the original Constitutional scheme, the new president took office on March 4, four months after the November elections. The new Congress would not convene until the first Monday in December, thirteen months after the election. This made sense to the framers in the eighteenth century, when transportation was slow and treacherous. The incoming president would call the Senate into special session for a week in March to confirm his cabinet, and then have the rest of the year to get his administration underway free from congressional interference.

By the twentieth century, the old system had grown obsolete. The second session of every Congress did not meet until after the next election had taken place, meaning that senators and representatives who had been defeated or retired came back as lame ducks. They proved especially susceptible to lobbyists, and since the short session had to end at midnight on March 3, they could easily filibuster to block needed legislation. George Norris, a progressive Republican from Nebraska who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, led the effort to amend the Constitution and move the presidential inauguration from March 4 to January 20, and the opening of Congress from December up to January 3. By staggering the closing dates of the terms of the president and Congress, the amendment also eliminated the need for outgoing presidents to spend their last night on Capitol Hill signing and vetoing last-minute legislation.

Beyond getting rid of most lame duck sessions, Norris’ amendment halved the transition between presidential administrations, from four months down to two. Transitions had grown increasingly awkward. During peaceful and prosperous times, the incoming president had to keep out of the way of his predecessor. Herbert Hoover, for instance, sailed off to South America after the 1928 election to avoid upstaging Calvin Coolidge’s final months in office. During periods of conflict and crisis, however, the interregnum cost the nation needed leadership. Outgoing presidents tried to coerce their successors into continuing their policies, as James Buchanan attempted with Abraham Lincoln in 1861, and Herbert Hoover did with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Lincoln and Roosevelt wisely avoided committing themselves to failed ideas, but these impasses did nothing to resolve the crises they faced, which grew worse by the time they took office.

The transition between Hoover and Roosevelt took place against a dramatic collapse of the American financial system, with the nation’s banking system shutting down, credit drying up, and unemployment soaring. Congress had passed the Twentieth Amendment in March 1932 and sent it to the states, but the necessary three quarters of the states did not ratify it until January 23, 1933, three days after the new date for inaugurations, making it too late for that year. The first inauguration on January 20 took place in 1937.

That last long interregnum convinced everyone that a shorter transition was preferable, but is the current system still too long? In a parliamentary system such as Great Britain’s, the new prime minister can move into 10 Downing Street the day after the election and the new cabinet can show up ready for work. The American system of separation of powers, however, makes no provision for a shadow cabinet in waiting. The president-elect needs time to select cabinet members and a host of other executive branch nominees who will be confirmed by the Senate. It may not do the new president any favor to shorten the interregnum further, although when times are tough the inauguration still looks awfully far away.



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