In a partial House vote tally published yesterday, Rep. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) was incorrectly listed as voting in favor of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration and Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio) was omitted from the list of those who voted for the amendment. The list also omitted two lawmakers who did not vote -- Reps. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Ralph M. Hall (D-Tex.). All other listed voted for the amendment. (Published 6/23/90)
The House yesterday decisively rejected a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would have permitted Congress and the states to enact laws making it illegal to desecrate the flag.
The 254 to 177 vote for the amendment was 34 votes shy of the two-thirds necessary for passage, putting to rest a year-long legislative battle over the nation's preeminent symbol and the constitutional protections it embodies. The House vote followed an emotional and divisive seven-hour debate and occurred one year to the day after the first of two Supreme Court decisions overturning flag desecration laws as an infringement on the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) proclaimed the flag issue dead for the remainder of the 101st Congress. "We are not going to go 'round and 'round and 'round and 'round" on an amendment that must be approved by two-thirds of both the House and Senate and then 38 state legislatures, he said.
Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), however, said he would still press for a Senate vote, probably next week. But Dole conceded that Democratic claims of being close to enough votes to defeat it in the Senate are probably accurate.
Although the House vote killed the amendment, it is unlikely to quell the roiling political controversy that at times has overshadowed the more fundamental questions involved in the dispute.
Even as supporters and opponents of the proposed amendment were taking to the House floor to lament the demagoguery that has accompanied the flag issue debate, political operatives from both parties were maneuvering to exploit or blunt the impact of the vote.
At the Capitol Hill headquarters of the National Republican Congressional Committee, employees draped flags from every window yesterday morning and within minutes of the House vote were faxing press releases to media outlets throughout the country assailing House Democrats who opposed the amendment for "flag wavering."
Responding for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a spokesman accused the GOP of dragging the flag "through the gutter with partisan politics."
The amendment was supported by 95 Democrats and 159 Republicans. It was opposed by 160 Democrats and 17 Republicans.
Following defeat of the flag amendment, the House rejected, 236 to 179, a proposed statute that would have banned flag desecration deemed likely to provoke violence.
Yesterday's debate in the House was largely a reprise of arguments that have become familiar in the past year, as both chambers of Congress wrestled with the merits of trying to protect the flag by amendment or by statute. But with a constitutional amendment on the line for the first time, emotions ran higher. Lawmakers draped themselves in evocative national symbols by bringing to the floor flags and copies of the Constitution.
Proponents cast the amendment as a narrowly drawn vehicle to protect the most revered national symbol from attack and one that would leave intact the free speech guarantees in the Bill of Rights.
But opponents portrayed the amendment as a precedent-breaking assault on the nation's most cherished freedom, as a blunt instrument being wielded by cynical politicians wrapping themselves in the flag to win votes under the guise of defending patriotism.
Speaking for the 20-word proposed amendment -- "The Congress and the states shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States" -- Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) called the flag "a unique symbol. And too many people have paid for it with their blood," Hyde said. "Too many have marched behind it. Too many have slept in a box under it. Too many kids and parents and widows have accepted this triangle as the last remembrance of their most precious son. Too many to have this ever demeaned."
"To weaken the First Amendment would be to set a dangerous precedent that goes against the very freedoms this country was founded upon, the very freedoms our flag represents," said Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) for the opponents. "If we start now, who knows what freedoms will be next? . . . . Where will it end?"
Yet for every principled argument offered in the well of the House yesterday, there was also an angry political denunciation and a mention of 30-second campaign commercials.
"We all know what's going on here," said Rep. John Bryant (D-Tex.). "Republicans believe they have found an issue they can use to win elections. And they're so anxious to win that they're willing to damage the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to do it."
Mocking supporters of the amendment, Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) brought to the floor a box of items with a flag motif, including a hat, a swim suit, panty hose and garbage bags. "How about American flag napkins," said Ackerman, reaching in to pull one out. "What if you blow your nose in one? Have you broken the law?"
Foley, making a rare floor speech, said the amendment would "defile" the liberty the flag represents.
"We should not amend the Constitution of the United States to reach the sparse and scattered and despicable conduct of a few who would dishonor the flag or defile it," said Foley, who cast only his second vote since becoming speaker.
Some of Foley's Democratic colleagues described defeat of the amendment as a major personal victory for the speaker, who made clear his revulsion of tinkering with the Constitution but did not make the battle a test of party loyalty that would have invited charges that Democrats are anti-flag.
As the House was winding up its debate, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard a parade of legal scholars debate both sides of the issue. Rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork said the First Amendment had never been interpreted to permit "any and all" expression, while former solicitor general Charles Fried warned lawmakers who support the amendment that winning elections was not worth being remembered as the elected officials "who drew a moustache on the Mona Lisa of our liberties."
The latest round in the flag debate began on June 11, when the Supreme Court for the second time within a year overturned on a 5-4 vote a law banning flag desecration. That law was enacted by Congress following the court's first decision on June 21, 1989, and represented the hopes of amendment opponents that a more narrowly drawn flag statute could pass constitutional muster and defuse a nettlesome and divisive issue.
When that law was also struck down, it revived calls for speedy congressional passage of an amendment to the Bill of Rights and with it an increasingly bitter political debate that was deeply tinged by election year jockeying. Though the drive for an amendment was bipartisan, with many Democrats supporting it, Republicans led by President Bush were the most vociferous in pushing for the historic change.
Dole, for example, called for enactment of an amendment on Flag Day -- June 14 -- and spoke openly of the potential for using 30-second commercials against opponents.
Even some amendment supporters expressed disgust at the glee with which political operatives anticipated how the issue could be used against Democrats in November.
"It demeans both the Constitution and the emblem of nationhood that we are seeking to protect to use it as political fodder," said Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), a World War II Marine combat veteran who voted for the amendment and criticized the "demagoguing contest" it had sparked.
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.
In yesterday's vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit physical desecration of the U.S. flag, 254 House members voted in favor of the amendment, failing to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority, and 177 opposed it. Here is the list of the 95 House Democrats who voted in favor of the amendment and the 17 Republicans who voted against it:
ALABAMA: Bevill, Browder, Erdreich, Flippo, Harris.
CALIFORNIA: Condit, Martinez.
FLORIDA: Bennett, Hutto, Nelson.
GEORGIA: Barnard, Darden, Hatcher, Jenkins, Ray, Rowland, Thomas.
ILLINOIS: Annunzio, Costello, Lipinski, Sangmeister.
INDIANA: Jacobs, Long, Sharp.
KENTUCKY: Hubbard, Mazzoli, Natcher, Perkins.
LOUISIANA: Hayes, Huckaby, Tauzin.
MARYLAND: Byron, Dyson, McMillen.
MASSACHUSETTS: Donnelly, Moakley, Neal.
MISSISSIPPI: Montgomery, Parker, Taylor, Whitten.
MISSOURI: Skelton, Volkmer.
NEW JERSEY: Guarini, Pallone, Roe.
NEW MEXICO: Richardson.
NEW YORK: Hochbrueckner, Manton, McNulty.
NORTH CAROLINA: Clarke, Hefner, Jones, Lancaster.
NORTH DAKOTA: Dorgan.
OHIO: Applegate, Eckart, Luken.
OKLAHOMA: English, Watkins.
PENNSYLVANIA: Gaydos, Kanjorski, Kolter, Murphy, Murtha, Yatron.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Derrick, Patterson.
SOUTH DAKOTA: Johnson.
TENNESSEE: Clement, Lloyd.
TEXAS: Andrews, Brooks, Bustamante, Chapman, de la Garza, Geren, Laughlin, Leath, Ortiz, Sarpalius, Wilson.
VIRGINIA: Olin, Payne, Pickett, Sisisky.
WEST VIRGINIA: Mollohan, Rahall, Staggers, Wise.
CONNECTICUT: Johnson, Shays.
IOWA: Grandy, Leach.
NEW YORK: Green, Houghton.
RHODE ISLAND: Schneider.