On Independence Day, politicians sing the praises of the Founders and recite the blessings of the great documents they left as their legacy. Too often, they forget their speeches the other 364 days.
True, the Declaration of Independence remains pristine and unaltered, as powerful a summons to the conscience of humanity as it was the moment it left Thomas Jefferson’s hand.
But the Constitution is something else. As Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., remarked the other day, there is a constant threat that at the next moment, “67 senators will agree it is just a rough draft” and think they can improve on “the most sacred legal document in history.”
Bumpers was speaking at a Capitol Hill news conference launching an organization called Citizens for the Constitution, a nonpartisan group dedicated, in its words, “to educating the public on the danger of continuing, unrestrained attempts to amend the Constitution.”
In its charter, the new group pointed out that “in recent years … constitutional amendment proposals have become the favored first-step panacea for all societal ills, rather than a solution of last resort.” That is no exaggeration.
In the first six months of this Congress, three proposed amendments came to a vote in the House and two others (on unrelated subjects) in the Senate. Think of it: Only 17 amendments approved in the last 206 years but five brought to a vote in the past six months.
Last week, on the day that the Supreme Court struck down a four-year-old law grandly named the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, there was a virtual stampede of legislators to the television cameras, vying for sponsorship of a constitutional amendment to right this judicial wrong.
As it happened, Attorney General Janet Reno was testifying that very morning in favor of yet another amendment - this one to guarantee crime victims’ rights. It became part of President Clinton’s agenda four months before the 1996 election, joining the grab bag of other minimeasures on which he campaigned.
All told, more than 100 constitutional amendments have been introduced so far in this Congress and the end is nowhere in sight.
When I asked the notably fair-minded chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary committees, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, about this rush to amend, they said the reflexive reach for constitutional remedies concerned them. “We should not be remaking the Constitution like it was silly putty,” Hyde said.
But both pointed out that while many amendments are proposed, few are approved. Only one of the five that reached the House and Senate floor so far this year got the required two-thirds majority - the flag-burning amendment in the House. Hatch argued that even though the others failed, “it is healthy for the country to have had the debate” on the balanced budget, term limits and campaign finance controls. “The political process works pretty well on this,” Hyde said.
The 60-plus former government officials, prominent lawyers and law professors, historians and others who are charter members of Citizens for the Constitution say the trend is worrisome. Coming from all points of the ideological compass, they made clear that their target is not any specific amendment but rather the rush to satisfy shortterm political imperatives by fiddling with a timeless charter.
The co-chairmen of the organization, financed by the Twentieth Century Fund and the Century Foundation, demonstrate the diverse nature of this save-the-Constitution coalition. Former Illinois representative Abner J. Mikva, later a federal judge and Clinton White House counsel, is a liberal Democrat; former New Jersey representative James Courter, a conservative Republican.
Mikva quoted James Madison’s admonition that amendments to such a compact and delicately balanced charter should be reserved for “great and extraordinary occasions.” These days, he said, “it is scary what happens. … Any time a popular cause arises, some member of Congress will throw in an amendment and whoosh, it’s voted on.”
That too is no exaggeration. The three amendments the House considered this year were debated for a grand total of 16 hours and 23 minutes - less than 5 hours apiece.
Courter made a telling point when he observed that increasingly “constitutional amendments are being used to score debating points … or to drape a bloody shirt on a political opponent.”
In urging Congress and the country to slow down and think twice before rewriting the Constitution, these folks are putting reason behind the Fourth of July rhetoric.
(The phone number of Citizens for the Constitution is 202-862-7791.)
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