By Drew DeSilver / 04.12.2018
The House of Representatives is expected to vote this week on a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Similar proposals have failed repeatedly in the past – most recently in 2011 – but changing the Constitution to require that federal spending not exceed revenue remains a perennial goal of fiscal conservatives.
Since 1999, in fact, 134 separate balanced-budget amendments have been formally introduced in either the House or Senate, making it the single most popular subject of amendment proposals over that timespan, according to our analysis of legislative data from the Library of Congress. Just in the current Congress, there are 18 separate balanced-budget proposals, out of a total of 64 proposed amendments to the Constitution.
Congress came closest to sending a balanced-budget amendment to the states for ratification in the mid-1990s. In January 1995, the House approved such an amendment 300-132, but an amended version failed twice in the Senate, first in March 1995 (65-35) and again in June 1996 (64-35).
The U.S. Constitution is famously difficult to amend: It takes a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate, then ratification by three-quarters of the states. Although Congress can also call a convention to propose amendments upon application by two-thirds of the states, that threshold has never been reached and there are many unanswered questions about how such a convention might work in practice. Of the roughly 12,000 amendments proposed since the Constitutional Convention, only 33 have gone to the states for ratification, and just 27 have made it all the way into the Constitution. (In contrast, India adopted its constitution nearly 69 years ago and it’s already been amended 101 times.)
Since 1999, members of Congress have introduced 747 proposed constitutional amendments, or an average of nearly 75 per two-year term. They have covered dozens of topics, from lengthening House terms (from two to four years) to prohibiting any future attempt to replace the U.S. dollar with a hypothetical global currency. But not one has become part of the Constitution, or even come close. In fact, the last time a proposed amendment gained the necessary two-thirds support in both the House and Senate was 1978, when a measure giving District of Columbia residents voting representation in Congress was sent to the states for ratification. Only 16 states had ratified it when the seven-year time limit expired.
The vast majority of proposed amendments die quiet, little-mourned deaths in committees and subcommittees. Only 20 times since 1999 have proposed amendments even been voted on by the full House or Senate, according to our analysis; this week’s vote in the House would be the 21st. The most recent instance before this week was in September 2014, when a campaign-finance amendment failed in the Senate on a procedural vote.
One proposed amendment did come close to congressional adoption within the period we examined. During each term of Congress from 1999 to 2006, the House approved an amendment banning flag desecration, only to see it die in the Senate – though the last time, in 2006, the Senate version fell just one vote short of the two-thirds requirement.
By design, amending the Constitution requires a degree of political consensus that seems in short supply these days. And many, if not most, proposed amendments have a distinct partisan tinge to them, making it that much harder to achieve the necessary supermajorities in both chambers of Congress. Most of the balanced-budget proposals since 1999, for example, have had Republicans as their lead sponsors (114 out of 134). Also, of the 69 amendments seeking to limit congressional terms in one way or another, 66 were sponsored by Republicans. Conversely, 68 of the 72 proposals to authorize limits on campaign contributions and expenditures were sponsored by Democrats or a Democrat-aligned independent.
The long odds don’t stop members of Congress from proposing dozens of new amendments every session. Some members, in fact, offer the same amendment repeatedly: In nine straight Congresses, for instance, Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., introduced resolutions to end presidential term limits by repealing the 22nd Amendment. Proposals in the current Congress run the gamut from old (reintroduction of the Equal Rights Amendment, which fell three states short of ratification back in 1982) to new (two amendments specifying that the president can’t pardon himself).
We also looked at the reasons that drove some of the most common amendment proposals. The number of proposed amendments related to campaign finance jumped after the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case that federal law can’t ban corporate election spending. Conversely, as same-sex marriages have become more common and public opinion has become more supportive of them in the past few years, there have been fewer and fewer proposals to write a ban on such marriages into the Constitution. And the number of proposed balanced-budget amendments, which had dropped off somewhat after that idea’s heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s, resurged after the GOP regained control of the House in 2010.
Amendments often are proposed as ways to overturn or get around controversial court decisions. In the current Congress, for instance, two separate proposals from Republicans would require representatives to be apportioned based only on states’ citizen population, rather than total population – a clear response to the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling upholding the “one person, one vote” standard. And from Democrats, in another reaction to Citizens United, come three proposals stating that constitutional rights apply only to “natural persons” and not to corporations.