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Time for new Constitutional amendments? History says ‘yes’

Quick quiz: Last month marked the 30th anniversary of the most recent U.S. Constitutional amendment. What was it?

Answer: The Congressional Pay Amendment of 1992, which requires any Congressional pay raise to not take effect until after the next class of the U.S. House is sworn in.

This 27th Amendment is not well remembered as it did not result from any great controversy or national mobilization effort. Instead, it was a fluke. It was among the first 12 amendments voted on by the original 13 states. Ten passed to become our Bill of Rights. Nearly 200 years later, a graduate student discovered the unpassed Congressional Pay Amendment contained no sunset provision, and the remaining states needed then ratified it with little hoopla.

Before this, the last truly contemporary amendment to pass was the 26th Amendment (1971), which lowered the voting age to 18 years. So if we don’t count the fluky 27th Amendment, the subsequent 51 years represent the second-longest such span in American history between amendments. The longest was the 61 years between the 12th Amendment (1804) changing the election rules for President and Vice President and the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery (1865).

This is notable as events remind us almost daily how incapable our current political and judicial systems at reflecting the will of the vast majority of Americans. When such situations occur, the Founding Fathers provided a clear option of remedy: amend the Constitution.

Consider just these three issues that transcend party. The impending landmark repeal of Roe v. Wade abortion rights; the unending, heart-wrenching mass shootings partly enabled by the Supreme Court’s landmark 1998 Heller decision; and the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 Citizens United ruling that allows dark money super-PACs and protects all corporate political spending as individual free speech. And on all three of these issues, where are the vast majority of the public? In opposition. Consider:

  • According to a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, just 28% of Americans want Roe v. Wade overturned, while 54% oppose this and 18% had no opinion.

  • Even before the recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, between 63% and 87% of Americans favor banning assault-style rifles, favor background checks on all gun sales (including private sales and at gun shows), would ban high-capacity magazines, and ban the mentally ill from buying guns.

  • According to a University of Maryland study, 88% Democrats in very blue districts and the same 88% of Republicans in very red districts want a Constitutional Amendment to limit campaign funding, especially by big donors.

These are overwhelming numbers, and some issues intersect, such as reauthorizing the Brady Bill’s ban on assault weapons. This bill was supported by Republican President Ronald Reagan and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1993. But it expired in 2004, and highly effective political spending by the National Rifle Association prevented any meaningful reforms since, even as gun homicide and suicide rates returned to their pre-Brady Bill highs.

Enacting comprehensive campaign finance reform would go extremely far in breaking Congressional gridlock on this and innumerable other frustrations enabled by our pay-to-play political system. This includes prescription drug cost reform, single-payer health care, a la cart cable, defense procurement reform, and proper regulation of monopoly power that’s contributing to our current inflation woes.

(For the record, the author favors a campaign finance amendment that would overturn the legal concept of corporate personhood and ban candidates from accepting donations from any source not eligible to vote for them. This would remove roughly 80% of the cost from our campaigns and reinstate more power among constituent voters.)

An obvious challenge is amending the Constitution is not easy. In American history, more than 11,000 amendments have been introduced and just 27 ratified. But two ways exist to propose amendments. One way is through a Congressional bill passed by two-thirds of Congress and then ratified by two-thirds of the states. The other way is for two-thirds of states to officially call for a convention of Congress to address the amendment issue(s).

Another challenge is the last five decades since the 1971 voting-age amendment has pacified a huge part of the voting public. The failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980s added further pessimism about the responsiveness of our political system.

But the reality is it can be changed, and ironically, the longer we go between amendments, the more sadness and anger build up among a majority of Americans. It will eventually explode. One hopes not in a Civil War like what ultimately ended the longest span between amendments. Less violently, it should explode in a voter-led movement to launch multiple amendment efforts, as we know sadly too well our political and judicial systems cannot be depended on in this respect.

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