Thursday, March 17, 2016

Change the Constitution? Don't count on it -- March 17, 2016 column


It’s spring break in America, so swarms of school kids are visiting the nation’s capital, texting and snapping selfies. Sometimes, they even glance up and learn something.

They aren’t the only ones.

Grumpy about the low tone of the presidential campaign, I went to the National Archives to see “Amending America,” a new exhibit about how we amend the U.S. Constitution.

That sounds dry, but it’s fascinating to see politics in historical perspective. Politicians are forever waving the Constitution in our faces, promising to repeal this or add that. Fortunately, it’s not that easy.

As the exhibit reminds us, a beauty of our system is that it runs on consensus. While it’s always possible to amend the Constitution, it’s never probable.

Members of Congress have proposed more than 11,000 constitutional amendments since the Constitution was written in 1787, but only 27 have been ratified. The exhibit celebrates the 225th anniversary of the first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791 and on permanent display in the Archives Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.

Jostling for space, I leaned over the cases in the dim Rotunda light and looked at the ancient documents. Watching the kids lean in, too, brought unbidden tears to my eyes. We are all de facto heirs of those long-ago patriots.

President Thomas Jefferson recognized in 1803 that the Constitution was a work in progress.

“Let us go on perfecting the Constitution by adding, by way of amendment, those forms which time and trial show are still wanting,” he wrote.

Most proposed amendments fade away. Some were serious attempts to solve problems, others intended only to score points.

Shall we have a constitutional amendment requiring everyone to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” – or face 20 years of hard labor? Shall we outlaw divorce? Or public drunkenness? How about we choose the president by lottery? No, no, no and no.

The process of “perfecting” the Constitution was laborious by design. To approve an amendment takes two-thirds of the House and Senate or a constitutional convention made up of two-thirds of state legislatures. Then, three-quarters of the states must vote to ratify it. Only then is it part of the Constitution.

The 27th and most recent amendment was first introduced in 1789 but wasn’t ratified until 1992. The measure makes sure that when Congress raises its pay, the raise doesn’t go into effect until the next congressional term.

“Amending America” continues through Sept. 4, 2017, and is especially relevant this Election Year. The Founders limited voting to white, land-owning men. The exhibit traces the five amendments have expanded our voting rights.

“Could you vote in 1869?” asks an interactive display. Visitors answer questions about their gender, race, age, poll tax and residence. Many adults discover that, no, they could not have voted in 1869. 

Not until the 15th Amendment in 1870 were all people guaranteed the right to vote  --regardless of race. It took another half century for women to get the vote, with the 19th Amendment in 1920. The 23rd Amendment in 1961 allowed residents of the District of Columbia to vote for president, though they still lack full congressional representation.

The 24th Amendment in 1964 prohibited poll tax fees for voting in federal elections. Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled state poll taxes unconstitutional. The 26th Amendment in 1971 lowered the voting age to 18.

The exhibit features more than 50 original documents, including rarely seen letters from citizens for and against amendments. A faded Western Union telegram from 1962 from Augustus C. Johnson of Springfield, Va., to Rep. Emanuel Celler, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, urges an end to the poll tax.

“No man who has studied the history of the adoption of this tax by Virginia can honestly deny that its basic purpose was to curtail the vote of our Negro citizens,” wrote Johnson, a Democratic congressional candidate at the time.

A 1964 letter from W.J. Isbell Jr., secretary of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, asks Congress to reject an amendment authorizing school prayer. Isbell supported the Supreme Court ruling that held forced prayers and Bible readings in school unconstitutional, reflecting the view that the state had no right to decide which prayers were said in school.

“I said, `Amen.’ For this is as it should be,” Isbell wrote about the court’s ruling. “I personally felt that the news media would inform the people and sanity would prevail, but this did not seem the case.”
Today, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald J. Trump wants to repeal the 14th Amendment, which grants anyone born in this country citizenship.

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton favors an amendment to reverse the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which said the government cannot ban corporate spending in campaigns.

Conservative Republicans hope to convene a constitutional convention to consider amendments.

Talk is talk. But a new amendment to the Constitution? Don’t count on it.  

 ©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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