Left-of-center activists are prodding state lawmakers to waste public time “ratifying” a constitutional amendment that, by its very terms, is long dead and can no longer be ratified. Earlier this year they even convinced the Nevada legislature to sign on to their campaign.
They should use their time and energy more wisely by campaigning for amendments that are both feasible and would make life better. One such amendment was proposed by James Madison and approved by Congress over two centuries ago — but could still be ratified today.
In 1972, Congress proposed a measure supporters dubbed the “Equal Rights Amendment” (ERA). On its face, the ERA seemed to ensure equality for women. In a burst of enthusiasm, 35 of the necessary 38 state legislatures ratified it.
As public debate continued, however, it became clear the ERA was a poorly-drafted measure that would do little for women’s rights. It would have transferred massive amounts of power away from local governments and elected representatives, handing it instead to lawyers, judges, and bureaucrats. When state legislatures realized this, the ratifications stopped and several states rescinded.As proposed by Congress, the ERA provided that it would become part of the Constitution only if 38 states approved it within seven years — that is, by 1979. When the ratification campaign bogged down, Congress tried to change the rules by extending the deadline to 1982. Not surprisingly, a federal court ruled that Congress could not do that. Although the court’s decree later proved unnecessary — state legislatures weren’t going to ratify such a flawed amendment anyway—the court’s opinion remains one of the most thorough judicial discussions of the amendment procedure.
Of course, even if Congress’s extension had been valid, the ERA still would have expired long ago.
Do activists have any serious legal basis for raising the ERA zombie? Well, no. Their “legal” arguments are based on a 1997 article written as a law student project. As often happens with student projects, the article is so error-ridden that no court is likely to take it seriously.
Activists should spend their time more productively by promoting useful constitutional reforms overwhelmingly favored by the American people — reforms now blocked by an unresponsive Congress. Examples include federal term limits and a balanced budget rule.
Or, if they want to exercise their fascination for the ancient, they could campaign to complete ratification of James Madison’s original first amendment, which Congress proposed in 1789 as part of the Bill of Rights. Although the requisite number of states have never approved it, unlike the ERA, the original first amendment has no ratification deadline.
As proposed by Congress, the measure provided for growth in the House of Representatives along with the growth in population, until such time as “the number of representatives shall amount to two hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred representatives, nor more than one representative for every fifty thousand.”
Adopting this amendment today might induce us to convert the U.S. House of Representatives from a council of Washington D.C. politicians into a large assembly citizen-lawmakers — linked to each other electronically, but residing in and representing their local communities. (The Senate would not be affected.) A large House of Representatives would better represent popular opinion and make it much harder for lobbyists and special interests to control Congress.
It would give citizens much better access to Congress than they have now. It would magnify the voices of the women the activists claim to care about.
Not only has modern technology rendered a very large House of Representatives practical, the cause is also politically feasible: In 1992 dedicated citizens secured ratification of Madison’s original second amendment — now in the Constitution as the 27th.
Whether or not activists undertake that project, they should stop wasting public time. Let the decomposed corpse of the ERA rest in peace.