Lame Duck Presidency -- An Institution

Before the adoption of Amendment XX to the Constitution in 1933, the Congress convened early in January of the year following the election and the President was inaugurated early in the month of March following his election. Amendment XX set the date for convening the Congress as January 3, and the beginning of the presidential and vice presidential terms on January 20, rather than March 4.

The authors and advocates of the change in dates saw a danger of irresponsible actions by retiring presidents from the time of their election in November to their replacement in March. (There was no record of any such action and no prospect of a governmental crisis in 1933.) By moving the inaugural date up to January 20, the amendment shortened the time for lame-duck misconduct from approximately 120 days to approximately 60 days.

But after securing the country for these 60 days in 1933, Congress moved in 1947 towards the adoption in 1951 of Amendment XXII limiting the presidency to two four-year terms, thus setting the scene for a lame-duck presidency, depending on political circumstances, of from two to four years. Only two presidents elected since the amendment was adopted have finished a second term: Eisenhower and Reagan. Neither reached lame-duck status. President Clinton, about to finish his second term, has been living a kind of lame-duck existence for the better part of the last four years, in some measure because of personal failures, but also because of systemic forces arising from the two-term amendment.

The possibility of another presidential term would put pressure on members of Congress to support presidential policies and especially on the Senate in the field of foreign policy such as the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and membership in the World Trade Organization.

The possibility of a third or even of a fourth presidential term would prevent, discourage, or postpone talk of a presidential legacy before a record had been well enough established to warrant its becoming the basis for a legacy.

It would protect the country from lengthy terminal state of the union messages, projecting years into the future and laying out spending and tax programs for Congresses to come, decades into the future.

It would discourage presidents from laying out programs for quick and easy accomplishment, such as President Clinton's educational proposals that included among other things: 1) reproductive health education; 2) time off from work for child bearing; 3) at least two days in the hospital; 4) $200 a week for the immediate post-natal period; 5) preschool child care; 6) Headstart in school of choice; 7) assured ability to read by age eight; 8) laptops and mastery of the Internet by age ten; 9) a high school of choice; 10) a $1,500 grant for attendance at a community college; 11) a $5,000 loan for college expenses; 12) an assisted first home mortgage; and, 13) federal funds to repair school buildings, especially leaking roofs, and for midnight basketball. There was no proposal for helping finance second marriages, or for financing the purchase of an automobile upon becoming eligible to drive a car.

It would discourage the use of sweeping adjectives such as "sustainable" for foreign policy, "affordable" for housing, "achievable" for goals, "enlarged" visions, "quality" education, "comprehensive" and "enhanced" anything and almost everything.

It would tend to support the views of Alexander Hamilton in "Federalist 17". He undertook to answer the charge that, under the proposed Constitution, the federal government might become so strong that it would absorb "those residuary authorities, which might be judged proper to leave with the states for local purposes." He replied, "Allowing the utmost latitude to the love of power which any reasonable man can require, I confess I am at a loss to discover what temptation the person entrusted with the administration of the general government could ever feel to divest the states of the authorities of that description." He then listed some of the things he thought would never be desirable cases of general jurisdiction. Among them, he included domestic police, supervision of agriculture, and local needs in general. He concluded: "It is therefore improbable that there should exist a disposition in the federal councils to usurp the powers with which they are connected, because the attempt to exercise those powers would be nugatory, and the possession of them, for that reason, would contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, or to the splendor of the national government."

Politicians, including recent presidents, do not sustain the views of Hamilton.

Nor would Hamilton be likely to approve a two-term president's including in his terminal state of the union address an endorsement of his possible successor to the presidency or his wife's candidacy for a seat in the United States Senate.

Eugene J. McCarthy served as as a seminarian, college baseball player, teacher and congressman before he became a Democratic-Farmer-Labor senator from Minnesota from 1959 through 1970. His latest book is No Fault Politics: Modern Presidents, The Press and Reformers (Times Books 1998).

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