By H. Harrison Coleman IV
My grandparents, born in the mid-1940s, saw the ratification of six amendments to the Constitution, and my parents saw the ratification of the most recent—the 27th, which was ratified in 1992. But my generation hasn't yet seen a single one, and I have a nagging fear we may never see one.
Looking at a timeline of the Constitution and its addenda begs the question: where are the 21st-century updates to our Supreme Document?
Of the two possible methods for amending the Constitution, only one is ever used—proposing an amendment in Congress, having it pass by a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate, and then sending it out to the states for ratification. This was a fairly regular process in our country’s history—a Constitutional amendment has been passed, on average, once every 8.5 years.
This, of course, is an average. There have been groups of Amendments all offered at the same time to tackle mammoth problems, as is the case with the Bill of Rights and the Reconstruction amendments. There have been two long spans of time in between Amendments in the past. Both of these long spans, however, were right before and after the Civil War, with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments breaking the monotony in the late 1860s.
After the Civil War, the process of amending the Constitution became more regular. This lasted until 1992, when the 27th Amendment was passed. In the 20th century, twelve Amendments were ratified, with an average of 8.3 years in between Amendments, suggesting that the Constitutional deadlock that defined the 19th century was caused by the tensions felt before and after the Civil War.
Despite what 40% of Americans have to say, we are not headed towards a new Civil War. So the question still stands—why has there been such a long break in the Amendment process?
Even the relatively recent 27th Amendment was a special case. The 27th was one of the original twelve amendments the Founding Fathers sent out to the states to ratify all the way back in the late 1780s. As the amendment had no built-in expiration date, it remained pending before the states for 202 years, until a college student realized it was still up for ratification and organized an effort for the remaining states to pass it, which they did in 1992.
The most recent Amendment approved by Congress was the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment that died before the states in 1985. Since then, no Amendment has escaped Congress. So, what is driving this 35 year long standstill in Congress, and the 50 year standstill among the states?
One of the root causes is the extreme partisanship we face now. Democrats and Republicans have never seen eye to eye, but, in recent decades, animosity between the two political coalitions has grown greatly. Perhaps an amendment would be able to pass Congress if one party had a supermajority, but the last time this happened was in with the 74th Congress in the late 1930s.
Another reason that has resulted in the stagnation and outdatedness of our Constitution is its age. I would be wrong in saying that the oldest active constitution in the world has adapted poorly to the 21st century; the truth is it has failed to adapt at all. Our governing document’s most recent addition is older than many of the things that influence our lives and politics, such as the increased connection of cell phones and social media and the new issues that we face, such as climate change, healthcare reform, and income inequality.
The problem of a stagnant Constitution seems to be a uniquely American problem. Countries such as Canada, France, and Greece, have amended their constitutions in 2011, 2009, and 2019, respectively. All of these countries have three things in common that make their constitutions easier to modernize: they have multi-party systems that decrease hostile partisanship, they have less rigid and more parliamentary legislatures, and their constitutions are significantly younger than that of the United States.
We must remember that the Founding Fathers wrote this document for a poor, agrarian country of around 4 million—a far cry from the wealthy, metropolitan nation of 330 million we know today. Modern America bears almost no resemblance to itself at the time when the Constitution came into effect. Even the Founding Fathers themselves knew that our Constitution was bound to become antiquated—Thomas Jefferson wanted the entire document revised every 19 years.
The inflexibility of our nation’s Supreme Document has led some states to give up changing it, and to instead work around it. Take the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, a pact between 15 states and Washington, D.C. to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular election. The Compact will only kick in if the member states collectively have the 270 votes required to secure a presidential victory—there are currently 196 Electoral Votes that are part of the compact, though that number is likely to grow.
Although technically legal, this organization clearly goes against the spirit of the Constitution—although maybe that’s a good thing. The Electoral College is one of the most unpopular and undemocratic parts of the Constitution, and if it cannot be thrown out by an amendment, then it should be thrown out by skirting around the Constitution to ensure a popular vote winner.
As the nation marches into the future, a critical part of the United States has remained anchored to the past. As the Union grows and changes, the ghosts of the 1700s still haunt it. As our demographics develop and change, and our politics evolve and unfold, America and its stagnant heart grow further apart. If one does not give way, the other will.