Little will on Capitol Hill to alter Constitution

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With no fanfare, the country in August quietly passed a peculiar milestone: The 14,746th day since Congress last proposed a successful amendment to the Constitution, officially becoming the second-longest such dry spell in history and raising questions about when, if ever, the next amendment will pass.

The drought comes even as the Constitution itself has received renewed attention from the tea party movement. With Congress polling at historically low approval ratings, and calls for major changes piling up, one would think the founding document would be ripe for revision.

Instead it’s just the opposite.

Even with a slight uptick this year, the trend is toward ever fewer amendments even being offered. John R. Vile, a political scientist who wrote a book on amendments, said that just 72 were proposed in the last Congress, down from an average of more than 500 in each Congress during the 1960s, 400 per Congress in the 1970s and more than 150 per Congress in the 1990s.

“We very well may have seen the last amendment to the U.S. Constitution for a very, very long period of time,” said Gregory Watson, the man who spearheaded ratification of the 27th Amendment, the most recent addition. “The partisan divide is so bitter, and there’s so much acrimony between the two political parties. There’s just too much institutional gridlock for anything to get through unless it’s just so noncontroversial.”

Still, members of the House of Representatives are about to give it a try.

Republicans this week will send to the floor a balanced-budget amendment, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, that would force the federal government to balance the books and require a “supermajority” vote in Congress to raise the debt limit.

A similar balanced-budget amendment passed the Senate in 1982, only to die in the House. Another version passed the House in 1995, only to fall one vote shy of approval in the Senate.

This time, Democratic leaders agreed to hold a Senate vote as part of this past summer’s debt deal, but they are working against the amendment, saying that balancing the budget now would be economically disastrous.

Original intent

The framers of the Constitution, realizing that they would not get everything right, intended for there to be amendments, and laid out the procedures in Article V. But they set a high bar: It takes a two-thirds vote of each chamber of Congress to propose an amendment to the states, and then ratification requires approval in the legislatures or in ratifying conventions inthree-fourths of the states.

Alternatively, the Constitution allows for the legislatures of two-thirds of the states to call for a constitutional convention, whose work would be submitted back to the states for ratification. That route has never been used, although some states have approved resolutions calling for such a convention.

Of the 27 amendments, 10 — the Bill of Rights — were proposed by Congress in 1789 and ratified in 1791.

That means in the subsequent 220 years, just 17 have been adopted, for an average of about one every 13 years. But the pace of subsequent amendments has been anything but regular.

Sixty-two years passed between the time the 12th Amendment was proposed to the states in 1803 and the 13th Amendment was proposed in 1865, as the Civil War was winding down — the longest drought in history. But the 13th Amendment was followed quickly by the 14th Amendment, proposed in 1866, and the 15th Amendment just three years later.

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