Essay: Hard to Change

March 10, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROGER MUDD: Now that President Bush has asked for a constitutional ban on gay marriages, the papers have been filled with stories about how to amend the Constitution. Mr. Bush probably knows it will not be easy. Look in your Constitution, find Article 5 and try to figure it out. Two-thirds of this can do that, or two-thirds of that can do that, but then three-quarters of these or three-quarters of those must also do that.

Since the nation’s beginning, more than 10,000 amendments have been proposed, but only 27 have made it through the Article 5 obstacle course. So little 5’4″ James Madison knew what he was doing when he wrote Article 5. He didn’t want just anybody messing around with his Constitution.

Most of the 10,000 never got out of committee. Many were simply whacko; many were simply trifling. But some, like the Balanced Budget Amendment, the Flag Protection Amendment, the English language amendment had support, all right, but never quite enough. If the Bush ban makes it, it will be number 28.

But believe it or not, there are another six amendments currently in suspension which theoretically could be resubmitted to the states by Congress. One is the Equal Rights Amendment, which became moribund in 1982 when time ran out three votes short of ratification. Another is the D.C. Statehood Amendment. Washington would have become the state of New Columbia, but time ran out on it in 1985 with only 16 states ratifying.

A third, the Child Labor Amendment, protecting children under 18, also fell short, but lived on in the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act. A fourth, the so-called Corwin Amendment of 1861, protecting slavery, cleared the Congress but was later eviscerated by both Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. So that leaves two which have no time limits on them at all.

The first, submitted in 1810, would take away citizenship from any American who accepts a title of nobility from an emperor, king, prince or foreign state. It fell short of ratification, but one more vote and Princess Grace of Monaco would have been out of luck. And the second, the Reapportionment Amendment of 1789, would limit the number of representatives to not more than one for every 50,000 people.

With the U.S. population at almost 293 million, the House would now have 5,805 members. Only ten states have ratified that one, and now you know why. So President Bush has his work cut out for him. To make the process easier, he might consider one gigantic all-purpose amendment to the Constitution: Equal protection of the law for all ages, all sexes, all straight marriages, all blonde princesses, provided they speak English, their flags are flying and they can prove that their budgets are balanced. That way he’d have to do it only once.

I’m Roger Mudd.