This Week’s Mtg: How Would you Change the Constitution?

We’ve had this topic before, in 2008.  Yet, it’s always striking to think about how rarely the Constitution has been amended, even though the country has changed so profoundly, from an agrarian mélange of states crowding the eastern seaboard to a continental, diverse, hi-tech superpower.  Only 27 amendments have been added to the original document, and 10 of those were the Bill of Rights, passed at the time of state ratification.  So, that leaves just #11-#27 – seventeen amendments in 121 years!  There have been no major amendments in over 40 years, since the 26th amendment gave 18-21 year olds the right to vote in 1971.

So, not going to happen (especially since you couldn’t get 2/3 of Congress to agree on anything).  So, why discuss it?  Well, proposing constitutional amendments is as American as apple pie.  About 11,000 have been introduced in Congress since the beginning.  And, who supports which ones tells us a lot about political values and how they see America at its most basic level

On Thursday, I’ll give a short introduction.  I’ll start by summarizing the amendment process, which I’m sure most of you know, so I’ll keep it really brief.  A link below lays it all out, too.  Then, I’ll try to add some value by explaining a way to categorize types of amendments.  This will help us to talk about proposed ones with some sense of the values and priorities they are trying to enshrine in the Constitution.  My categories will be amendments that would

  1. Expand rights:  E.g., add positive rights like the right to health care, or add a right to life by banning abortion.
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  2. Change structures of government and/or the electoral process:  E.g., abolish the electoral college, public campaign financing, term limits.
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  3. Enshrine particular public policies in the Constitution, often to try to change society itself: E.g., balanced budget amendment, line-item veto.

Of course, these categories bleed together a bit, depending on what you think the motives behind amendments are and the effect you think they would have.  The one point I’ll mention here is that there is no such thing as an apolitical amendment.  Every one ever passed had political motives and political effects and – rightly so – stirred political controversy.  Every one mentioned above has and would do the same.

Oh, one more, fun thing.  How much do you know about the Constitution?  Take this quiz to find out: Facts About the Constitution Quiz.  They make you do a 10-question really easy quiz and then ask you if you want to try the much harder 50-question one.  If you really think you know the Constitution, try the latter.  I got 47 of 50, but it was challenging.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. How may the Constitution be amended?
  2. Why have so few amendments been ratified?  Is it just the supermajority requirements, or do amendments tend to happen only when a very broad public consensus emerges on the need for changing the document?
  3. What “types” of amendments are there, based on their purposes and likely effects?  How does that help us to understand the motives and goals of amendments’ proponents?
  4. What amendments have been proposed in the last 20 years?  What are the reasons for them?
  5. The Constitution’s “meaning” usually changes through reinterpretation, not amendment.  Are we on the verge of a major new era of reinterpretation, led by the Roberts Court?

LINKS –  

  • The Constitution Facts Quiz cited above.
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  • A nice, bullet list of recently proposed amendments (but only from 1991-2006)  I recommend
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  • Wiki entry on proposals to amend the Constitution.  See this one for (1) “how does the amendment process work” basics, and (2) the half-dozen or so ones that have passed Congress but were never ratified by the states (the ERA, for example)  I recommend.
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  • One prominent political scientist’s list of 23 proposed Constitutional amendments.  I read the book, so I can explain any of them.  Recommended 
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  • I like this guy’s amendments generally, but he does include one of the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard: The balanced budget amendment (BBA) that Republicans have been flogging for 20 years.  Recently, every single House Republican voted for a really, really unworkable and silly version of a BBA.
    —  A budget expert patiently explains why the BBA is a crazy idea.
    —  An honest conservative does the same, and does it better here.

A new schedule for May – August will be available at the meeting and posted shortly.

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