Posted by jfb on January 19th, 2009 | 0 comments
One of the curious features of our aging constitution is the long transition between the old president and the new. A new congress waits until January 3 to take office, already a delay of seven weeks. A new president waits seventeen more days, for a total lag time of two and a half months.
In the last two and a half months, Obama has had a tricky balancing act to push ahead his economic plan without exceeding his authority or seeming presumptuous. On foreign affairs he has remained quieter. Everyone knows policy changes are coming on all our wars and conflicts, but is still stuck dealing with the status quo. Obama’s silence on Gaza was more embarrassing, seen by many as tacit support for Israel. Not that we should expect any great changes on that policy front, but his silence may be seen as a lost opportunity.
Meanwhile, Bush has been keeping a low profile. At a time of gathering crisis, there is no clear sense of anyone being in charge.
Presidents used to wait even longer to take office- March 4th, almost four months. This date wasn’t set in the Constitution, nor was the date of the election. The Continental Congress established these dates, operating under the Articles of Confederacy, when preparing to implement the Constitution. Four months seemed quite reasonable when people traveled by horse, canal or sailing ship, and winter travel was very much at the mercy of the elements. News traveled no faster than the fastest ship or horse, and the federal government was not expected to be very energetic.
By 1861, roads and rails and telegraph had sped things up considerably. Lincoln had to rely on state governors in the North raising their own militias throughout the secession crisis, while lame duck President Buchanan took no action to build the federal army. This wasn’t enough to cause any changes, however- it was trivial compared to the larger matters at stake.
Finally, in 1933, when the world had shrunk even further, the transition from Hoover to FDR was the catalyst. FDR had been elected with a huge program to ease the economic crisis, but had to sit on his hands for another four months while Hoover did nothing. The Twentieth Amendment was passed before FDR even took office, moving the inauguration to January 20th, and January 3rd for the new Congress. It didn’t take effect right away, so FDR’s second term was the first one to begin on the new date.
It had to be a constitutional amendment because it shortened the terms of current officeholders. Congress by itself had the power to change the date, but not to shorten any term of office established by the Constitution. So changing the date again has a pretty high hurdle to pass.
Congress does have the power to change the date of elections, of course, to be closer to January 20. But aside from the logistics of pushing elections further into the winter, it’s been the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November since the Continental Congress, and people cling to traditions like that.
Our constitution is old, and this is one of the smaller problems we have with its aging. I don’t suggest we rewrite it, because I’m afraid we’d lose much more than we’d gain. But it makes any crisis that much more dangerous when our political map doesn’t match up with the territory. It’s one of the indicators that the old regime could be ready to give way. Institutional failure combined with financial disaster is a handy warning sign of collapse.
Oh well. If it all comes apart, maybe we can build something nice on the ruins.