Just give us the bike

JUST GIVE US THE BIKE…. Earlier this month, Jon Stewart had a great bit on why we should let Barack Obama be president now, instead of making us wait until Jan. 20: “It’s like when you were a kid and your parents bought you a bike. You knew it was a bike. It’s shaped like a bike; what else could it be? But they wouldn’t let you open it until Christmas. I guess what I’m saying is, just give us the bike.”

There are plenty of major democracies — England comes to mind — that forgo lengthy transition processes. A head of state wins, and almost immediately, takes office. Forget that lame-duck phase — voters pick a candidate and then get a leader.

How’d we end up with an 11-week transition? Christopher Smith has a piece in The New Republic today, arguing that we shouldn’t have to wait so long for the inauguration, and explains a bit about the history.

Thank the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933 — which actually shortened the transition period from a glacial four months. Beginning in 1793, at the start of George Washington’s second term, Inauguration Day was March 4. This made some sense back when the Electoral College had meaning, and when it took weeks for the electors and the new administration to travel by horse and wagon across muddy paths from around the country to Washington.

But a couple of scary transition periods made plain the need to shorten the handover of power. The first was in 1861, when the country was on the verge of civil war; Abraham Lincoln was forced to watch Jefferson Davis inaugurated as president of the Confederacy while he was stuck on the sidelines. The second, eerily familiar, transition of our discontent came in 1933. Herbert Hoover had bungled the country into the beginning of the Great Depression, stoking the election of Franklin Roosevelt. Though FDR was in some ways happy for the lengthy pause, using it to distance himself as far as possible from Hoover’s suggestions about how to save the banking industry, he knew that the country’s stability was endangered by the delay — a period historians have labeled, in a deliciously gloomy turn of phrase, “the interregnum of despair.” There had been attempts since 1922 to eliminate a four-month lame duck Congressional session. Agreement was finally reached to swear in the new Congress on January 3, just after New Year’s parties had ended. The president’s arrival also shifted, but the choice of date appears to have been something of an afterthought. “January 20 seemed to be a simple decision based on a rounding notion that the president should follow the new Congress into office within a reasonable amount of time,” says NYU professor Paul C. Light. “That’s an interesting twist. [Moving the presidential inauguration] had less to do originally with urgency than with the prerogatives of Congress.”

75 years ago, we recognized that life had sped up, and that our power structure should adapt accordingly. Why not do it again?

Realistically, the date isn’t going to change. It would take a constitutional amendment, and that’s highly unlikely. For that matter, the executive branch is awfully big, and transition teams tend to use every last day of the interregnum making staffing decisions. Shortening the period would be, for incoming officials, pretty inconvenient.

But for the rest of us, it’s tempting, isn’t it?

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