Continued from page 2

Conflict of interest

For many, the Constitution is a document encased in glass that should be broken only in case of emergency.

Take Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who, earlier in his decades-long career, regularly co-sponsored amendments including one to eliminate the Electoral College and another to try to restart the stalled Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). But Mr. Leahy sponsored his last amendment in the 104th Congress, 15 years ago, and earlier this year took to the Senate floor to say that adding a balanced budget amendment would “defile the Constitution.”

“Over the years, I have become more and more skeptical of recent efforts to amend the design that established the fundamental liberties and protections for all Americans,” Mr. Leahy said during the balanced-budget floor debate. “I believe the founders did a pretty good job designing our fundamental charter.”

That is the case at all stages of the process: not only in Washington, where Congress is reluctant to propose amendments, but right down to state legislatures, where six amendments that won the approval of Congress have failed to win ratification.

The most bruising of those failures was over the ERA, first proposed by Congress in 1972. Thirty-five states ratified the amendment, but it stalled there, three shy of the total needed.

One of those failures was Virginia, where supporters tried repeatedly — and even came close in 1980, only to have state Sen. John Chichester, at the time a newcomer to the chamber, use a curious parliamentary strategy to block it.

Under Virginia’s rules, constitutional amendments needed an absolute majority, or 21 senators, to be ratified. The ERA split the Senate, with 20 senators favoring it and 20 opposing it, which should have kicked the question to Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, a Democrat who held the tie-breaking vote and supported the amendment.

But when time came for the vote Mr. Chichester abstained, citing a conflict of interest. That meant the final tally was 20-19 in favor — but without a tie, Mr. Robb was unable to cast his vote, leaving the amendment short of the 21 votes needed under the state’s rules.

The stunt made national headlines.

Reached by phone this year, Mr. Chichester, who has since become a pariah among many Virginia Republicans for his fight to increase spending and taxes, said he didn’t recall much about the incident or his reasoning.

“That’s all vague,” he said.

Lucky No. 27

The last amendment successfully proposed by Congress was the 26th, which set 18 as the national voting age. It was sent to the states for ratification on March 23, 1971, and was ratified by the 38th state 100 days later.

But it’s not the last amendment in the Constitution. That honor belongs to the 27th Amendment, which says when Congress votes to raise its pay, the increase cannot take effect until the next Congress is seated.

Story Continues →