In fevered tones, the House of Representatives on Wednesday asserted its devotion to Old Glory and voted for a constitutional amendment to allow Congress and the states to make it a crime to desecrate the American flag.
“If you need to burn something, burn your congressman in effigy,” Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., exhorted on the House floor with the passion that typified this culturally divisive debate. “But don’t burn the flag.”
The vote in support was 312-120, with 93 Democrats joining 219 Republicans to surpass the two-thirds majority, or 280 votes, needed to amend the Constitution. Twelve Republicans joined 107 Democrats and one independent in opposition.
The overwhelming support indicates that of all the Republican attempts to amend the Constitution this session, this may be the one that succeeds, altering the Constitution for the 28th time since the founding of the republic. The Constitution was last amended in 1992 to prevent Congress from granting itself an immediate pay raise.
The measure now goes to the Senate, where it has strong support and is likely to be voted on next month. If it wins a twothirds majority there, it must then be ratified by three-fourths, or 38, of the states. No presidential action is needed.
Fairly rapid approval by the states seems all but certain, since the veterans groups choreographed resolutions from 49 state legislatures - all but Vermont - asking Congress to pass the wording that the House approved Wednesday: “The Congress and the States shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.”
“This amendment restores the flag to its rightful position of honor,” declared Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon, R-N.Y. He oversaw passage of the measure, which was orchestrated by veterans groups after the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that burning the flag was protected as a form of free speech.
“Real down-to-earth people say this amendment would not violate their right to free speech,” Solomon added. “They don’t believe flag-burning is free speech.”
But opponents argued that destruction of the flag was exactly the kind of unpopular speech that the First Amendment was designed to protect, and that the overblown rhetoric on the other side was an empty form of patriotism that forced a reverence for symbols while undercutting fundamental rights.
“It is easy to confuse the symbol of something with what it symbolizes,” said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland, one of the dozen Republicans to oppose the measure. The amendment, he said, “would allow governments to coerce respect” for something that is “the symbol of freedom from government coercion.”
More concretely, opponents argued that the amendment was a red herring - some called it a red, white and blue herring - to appease veterans today while the Republicans plan tomorrow to vote to cut $32 billion in veterans’ benefits over the next seven years. “The vets are keeping their eye on the flag while someone’s picking their wallet,” said Rep. Gary L. Ackermann, D-N.Y.
Opponents also questioned the need for such an amendment when there were only 45 cases of flag burning reported between 1777 and 1989 and fewer than 10 a year since then. Supporters said that any burning dishonored the thousands who have died fighting for this country and that if flag burning is wrong, it is wrong no matter how seldom it occurs.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: How they voted How the region’s representatives voted in the 312-120 roll call Wednesday by which the House passed a constitutional amendment to ban desecration of the flag. A “yes” vote is a vote to pass the amendment. Voting yes were 219 Republicans and 93 Democrats. Voting no were 12 Republicans, 107 Democrats and 1 independent. There are no vacancies in the 435-member House. IDAHO Republicans - Chenoweth, Y; Crapo, Y. MONTANA Democrats - Williams, N. WASHINGTON Republicans - Dunn, Y; Hastings, Y; Metcalf, Y; Nethercutt, Y; Smith, Y; Tate, Y; White, N. Democrats - Dicks, N; McDermott, N. Associated Press