Most people are vaguely aware that U.S. presidents take over the office at some point in January (the 20th, to be precise). But, did you know that it’s actually illegal for an outgoing president to continue serving after January 20th? Per law, a presidential term must be exactly 4 years long, down to the hour. Since the 20th Amendment took effect, there have been 3 times where January 20th fell on a Sunday. In those cases, the presidents took their oaths of office in private ceremonies on the 20th, before a public inauguration was held on the 21st.
That 4-year term limit’s been a part of the Constitution since the beginning. But, January 20th wasn’t always the official start/end date, it used to be March 4th up until 1933. The Constitution had been adopted in June 1788, and the U.S. Congress didn’t begin until March 4th, 1789, and George Washington wasn’t sworn in as our first president until April 30th. But, as of Washington’s 2nd term, the official presidential Inauguration Day was moved up to March 4th.
Fast forward to the early 20th century, and America was starting to have problems with how long it was taking for officials to actually start their job after winning election. Congressional delegates, who were elected in November, didn’t start their first session until the following December…a full 13 months later! Then, their 2nd session, which started the December after that, was only allowed to last until their terms ended on March 4th. So, in the 1930’s, Congress passed the 20th Amendment, which ordered congressional terms to begin & end on January 3rd, around 2 months after the election. Oh, and the president’s inauguration day also got shifted to January, as well (the 20th, to be precise).
The 20th Amendment also laid out what had to happen if a president wasn’t chosen by January 20th. The sitting president wouldn’t just stay in office by default; Congress either has to appoint someone to serve in the interim, or choose another way of selecting someone. Then, that person would serve until a President or Vice president qualified. But, that’s never happened before, so we don’t really know just how that might all play out.
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