A gathering crowd of wild-eyed radicals is fixated on fundamentally transforming the basic law of the land. This group views the Constitution as, at best, an imperfect rough draft, a flawed document in need of a raft of fixes. At worst, they see it as a cheap campaign placard on which they can pin whatever faddish political slogans and gimmicks might win them votes.
I refer, of course, to the Republican Party, especially the Tea Party movement.
I know, I know. Liberals are supposed to be the great threat to our freedoms, what with their big government and popular, social safety-net programs. It's true that Democrats have introduced, by my count, 28 constitutional amendments in this session of Congress. Illinois Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. alone has introduced nine, aimed at guaranteeing everything from a clean environment to a progressive income tax (which, er, we already have).
Conservatives, of course, are self-styled defenders of the Constitution, accusing Democrats of subverting or discarding the document. "Sadly, it seems today that the Constitution is no longer at the forefront guiding Congress," Minnesota GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann lamented in July, calling for a "return to the fundamental principles" of the Constitution. Bachmann, by the way, is sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would restrict the president's fundamental power to negotiate treaties (she's worried that the president will try to replace the U.S. dollar with a foreign currency). And she is cosponsoring three other constitutional corrections: a balanced budget amendment, a parental rights amendment, and one which would prevent the government from owning stock. Apparently the Founding Fathers need help elucidating those fundamental principles.
Constitutional amendments are rightly the rarest of legislative changes, with only 17 amendments having been ratified since the Bill of Rights was adopted. Yet the self-proclaimed party of conservatism has become a constitutional graffiti movement. Republicans have introduced 41 constitutional amendments this Congress. Democrats haven't had a constitutional fix high on their agenda since the Equal Rights Amendment went the way of disco. But one can easily tick off a litany of constitutional edits that are promoted at the highest level of Republican politics.
No fewer than seven GOP-ers, for example, have offered balanced budget amendments. Five different Republicans, with 65 years in Congress among them, have sponsored term-limits amendments. There are proposals to prevent flag desecration, which no doubt draw their most fervent support from the folks who pulled on their American-flag T-shirts and stars-and-stripes hats last month and sat in sweltering heat on their American-flag chairs, exhorting Glenn Beck to defend us from those who disrespect Old Glory.
These, along with proposals to enshrine bans on abortion and gay marriage in the Constitution, are the classics. Others gaining popularity include the aforementioned stricture against government ownership of stock and the parental rights amendment, both of which enjoy the support of at least 100 House members, including top GOP leaders. There are also calls to cap federal spending as a percentage of economic output and to require a supermajority to raise taxes.
But you can also trace the rise of the GOP's nutty strain through the tenor of constitutional rewriting that the right thinks is necessary. It's no longer about simply tacking on, but also stripping out. Observe the calls to repeal the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to anyone born in the United States.
Or check out the Iowa Republican Party's platform, which calls for a return to the "original 13th Amendment, not the 13th Amendment in today's Constitution." Some conspiracy-minded types believe that before the current 13th—which bans slavery—was ratified, an earlier 13th was adopted (it wasn't) barring U.S. citizens from receiving foreign "title of nobility or honour." (This would have expanded on the Constitution's ban on any U.S. officeholder receiving such.) This "original" 13th was later mysteriously dropped. Iowa Republicans want it restored because Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, which might be a foreign title of honor. Or something.
For sheer "huh?" quality, though, nothing beats the Tea Party push to repeal the 17th Amendment. That's the one, passed in 1913, which provides for direct election of U.S. senators who had previously been appointed by state legislatures. Ninety-seven years later, the Tea Party and its GOP candidates want to take voters back out of the process. And some could be in Congress next year. Utah attorney Mike Lee, the favorite to win ousted Sen. Bob Bennett's seat, favors repeal. (No surprise: Utah was the only state not to ratify it.) So do Idaho state Sen. Raul Labrador, running against conservative Democratic Rep. Walt Minick; funeral-home owner Steve Southerland, challenging Florida Democratic Rep. Allen Boyd; and Louisiana lawyer Jeff Landry, who is running for the open seat being vacated by Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon (who is running for Senate). Colorado GOP Senate nominee Ken Buck opposed the 17th Amendment before quickly backtracking and voicing support for it. Ditto former Ohio state Sen. Steve Stivers, challenging Democratic incumbent Mary Jo Kilroy.
Georgia GOP Rep. Paul Broun told supporters in July that the "process of socializing America" traces not only to the 17th but the 16th Amendment (which allows an income tax) and that he wants to repeal them both.
These may indeed be "constitutional conservatives," but it's a constitution of their imagination, not reality.