Proposing constitutional amendments is very easy — kind of like political grandstanding

May 15, 2014

A constitutional amendment championed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and scheduled Thursday for a hearing by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) would reverse Supreme Court decisions allowing increased political spending by corporations by, among other things, empowering states to regulate campaign finance.

Will it pass? Well, let's take a look at history. Similar amendments have been introduced unsuccessfully about a half a dozen times before — in this Congress alone.


Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) gestures during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times since 1787. If every proposed amendment had passed and been ratified by the states, however, the number of amendments would be in the thousands. (Imagine carrying a copy of that Constitution around in your breast pocket.) According to the Senate Web site a total of 11,539 separate amendments were introduced between the first and the 112th Congress, which wrapped up in early 2013. Recent Congresses have introduced between 66 and 92 amendments over the two-year cycle.

A look at the current Congress suggests that the trend has hardly abated. At least 82 times, members of the 113th Congress have proposed constitutional amendments. Most of them are duplicates (and duplicates of duplicates). Among the topics addressed:

  • Banning flag burning
  • Banning sharia law
  • Addressing the debt limit
  • Term limits
  • Repealing the 16th Amendment; that is, the income tax
  • Voting rights
  • Mandating a balanced budget
  • Defining personhood to prevent abortion
  • The Equal Rights Amendment
  • Same-sex marriage
  • Executive branch military authority

And then a handful looking at the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations new avenues to make political donations. A few others consider campaign financing more broadly, keeping Citizens United in mind. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) introduced an amendment in April 2013; it got 73 co-sponsors and went nowhere. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) introduced one in January of that year. It got one co-sponsor and suffered the same fate.

But that's the Republican-controlled House. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced a bill hoping to address Citizens United. And he got one co-sponsor; his bill also went nowhere. Perhaps Reid and Leahy, as leaders in the body, will have more success. In a news release, Leahy seemed pessimistic: "I recognize that amending the Constitution will not be easy."

So why do it? Often, constitutional amendments are introduced not out of the hope that they will eventually make their way to the National Archives building, where they're be Scotch-taped to the bottom of the original document. Instead, they're introduced to make a political point. Given Reid's recent jeremiad against the Koch brothers and their political spending, and given the dire prospects for dispirited Democrats in November, the sincerity of the current exercise is left to your own interpretation.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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