Amending the Constitution Isn't Easy

Roundup: Media's Take

Tracey Kaplan, Kansas City Star (Feb. 25, 2004):

President Bush on Tuesday joined a long, proud - and mostly unsuccessful - line of Americans that stretches back 215 years: those who have tried to amend the U.S. Constitution.

Even before the notion of banning same-sex marriage became grist for constitutional debate, Congress had considered 1,186 proposed amendments to the nation's defining document. They range from a flag-burning ban in 1989 to an 1810 law that would have stripped the citizenship of anyone who kept or accepted a title of nobility from a foreign land.

But only 27 made it into the Constitution, most recently a 1992 ban on members of Congress raising their own pay between elections. And more than a third of the 27 constitutional postscripts were approved more than 213 years ago as a package - the 10-amendment Bill of Rights.

Historically, amendments that expand the rights of citizens have fared far better than those proscribe rights. The lone amendment that took away rights from citizens, the hugely unpopular prohibition of alcohol, was tossed out 14 years after it became law - and it took another amendment to do that.

Despite Bush's support, the gay-marriage amendment will have a hard time obtaining the necessary support even within the president's own party, experts say. Republicans expressed strong reservations Tuesday about the championing the amendment proposed by U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave and Sen. Wayne Allard, both Republicans from Colorado.

And even proposals with broad political support face a daunting challenge to becoming part of the Constitution.

Purposely reserving amendments only for" certain great and extraordinary occasions," the founding fathers required that any Constitutional amendment be approved by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and then ratified by three-fourths of the states.

Right now, the GOP has only a two-seat majority in the Senate, making it tough to get a super-majority there.

"Our biggest hurdle is here inside the beltway," said Aaron Johnson, Musgrave's chief of staff.

In contrast, another hotly debated Constitutional change, the Equal Rights Amendment sailed through Congress in 1972 on a wave of the modern feminist movement but stalled in state legislatures and ultimately failed. ...

Only one successful amendment, the 18th, which banned manufacture or use of alcohol after its ratification in 1919, but was rescinded in 1933, set limits on citizens' rights, scholars said. In contrast, limits on voting rights for blacks and women that were in the original Constitution were removed through the amendment process.

Given their own party's opposition, Republican advocates of the marriage amendment are unlikely to succeed in bringing the issue to a vote in Congress before the November election. The measure's ultimate success could hinge on the timing because politics and national events can have such a crucial effect on attitudes.

For example, giving 18-year-olds the vote had been proposed 11 times since the early 1940s without success. But after languishing for almost three decades, the proposal sailed through Congress in 1971, the midst of the Vietnam War, when 18-year-olds were eligible for an unpopular draft, and was quickly ratified as the 26th amendment the same year.


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