AP Picture/Matt Rourke
With the chaos within the Capitol disrupting the usually routine certification of Electoral Faculty outcomes, as a historian who has taught and written concerning the Structure for over 40 years, I do know that one factor is definite. President Donald Trump’s time period will finish at midday on Jan. 20, 2021. At that very same immediate, the nation can have a brand new chief government.
The framers of the Structure didn’t set up a selected day that presidential phrases finish, however they had been very clear that the president “shall maintain his Workplace throughout the Time period of 4 Years.” Not 4 years and a day. Not three years and 364 days. 4 years.
Ramon de Elorriaga by way of Wikimedia Commons
How lengthy ought to a president serve?
There may be nothing magical about that quantity. The framers debated whether or not the president’s time period must be 4, six or seven years, whether or not the president may serve just one time period, or may serve for all times. Finally, they settled on 4 years and allowed reelection.
Nevertheless, they had been emphatic that the president would serve for an outlined interval. Why? As a result of kings didn’t. They had been making a republic, the place the persons are sovereign, and neither they nor the American folks wished a monarch.
In September 1788, after the Structure was ratified, the Confederation Congress directed that the brand new authorities would start on March 4, 1789. That appeared to be sufficient time to conduct elections for representatives, senators, a president and a vp – and for them to journey to New York, the seat of the brand new authorities.
It wasn’t. The Home of Representatives achieved a quorum on April 1, the Senate on April 6 and George Washington took the oath of workplace as president on April 30.
Nonetheless, each 4 years thereafter, for greater than 140 years, presidents started their time period – whether or not a primary or second one – on March 4 as a result of Congress established it as Inauguration Day in 1792 and by no means modified it.
Electoral crises – the tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in 1800, the secession disaster in 1860-61 and the contested election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden in 1876 – didn’t stop one time period from ending and one other starting on March 4.
Did a switch of energy take too lengthy?
Harris & Ewing by way of Wikimedia Commons
The twentieth Modification, adopted in 1933, modified the day and time of presidential inaugurations to midday on Jan. 20.
The modification was the results of a 16-year campaign by Sen. George W. Norris of Nebraska. Norris believed that lame-duck congresses that met between November and March following elections didn’t mirror the folks’s will and mustn’t legislate. This was very true, he argued, if the get together controlling that lame-duck session had misplaced within the November elections.
Equally an issue had been defeated presidents who served for months after voters had declined to reelect them. In an emergency such because the secession disaster, the four-month interval between the election and inauguration of a brand new president had delayed a decisive response to disunion.
The Structure set the time period lengths for presidents, senators and representatives. Altering the date they began and ended would invite a constitutional problem, so it might be achieved solely by modification. Beginning in 1934, Congress would convene, with newly elected members within the Home and Senate, on Jan. 3 – and starting in 1937, the president would take the oath of workplace at midday on Jan. 20.
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What if there have been different issues?
The twentieth Modification additionally supplied a path ahead if issues didn’t go easily within the runup to Inauguration Day.
If the president-elect died between the election and Jan. 20, the vice president-elect would change into president. The modification additionally declared what ought to occur if Congress couldn’t agree on who had received the presidential election, both due to impasse over counting electoral votes or the Home’s failure to declare a winner when no candidate obtained a majority of electoral votes.
If that occurred, or if the individual chosen wasn’t not less than 35 years previous and what the Structure calls a “pure born citizen” of the nation, the vice president-elect would serve till Congress picked another person. If there wasn’t a vice president-elect or that individual didn’t meet the Structure’s standards both, then Congress may decide who would function performing president till it determined how a brand new president could be chosen.
Happily for the nation, these provisions have by no means been examined. Some are simple – like permitting a vice president-elect to take the place of a deceased president-elect. But when a winner isn’t declared by Jan. 20, partisan division is probably going a part of the issue – and meaning consensus after Jan. 20 will not be attainable.
One factor is evident, nonetheless. The twentieth Modification creates a tough cease. The sitting president’s time period ends at midday on Jan. 20. If Congress can’t decide a winner, the Presidential Succession Act, adopted in 1947, would make the speaker of the Home of Representatives the brand new chief government – not less than for a time.
Whether or not he likes it or not, Trump’s time period as president will finish Jan. 20. What occurs subsequent is but unknown, however not less than that a lot is definite.
Editor’s word: That is an up to date model of an article initially printed Oct. 22, 2020.
Donald Nieman has obtained funding from the Nationwide Endowment for the Humanities.