Amending the Constitution: What’s Next?

The United States Constitution is a living document, which means that t can be amended. The process of amending it is in itself within the Constitution, in Article V. In order to add a new amendment or to take out a current one, either both houses of Congress have to pass the motion by a two-thirds majority or a special constitutional convention would have to be called, and that can only be done if two-thirds of the state legislatures would ask for such a convention. This has not happened so far in the history of amendments, but it is a safeguard. If the people truly wanted an amendment and Congress was not willing to act, they could petition their state legislatures to do so.

Once an amendment is passed, it goes to the Office of the Federal Register. Contrary to popular belief, the President does not have to sign a Constitutional amendment in order for it to be legal. Once the amendment is properly registered, it is sent to all fifty states. In order for the amendment to become part of the Constitution, it has to be ratified by three-fourths of the states (38 states in all). The last amendment that almost became a part of the Constitution was the Equal Rights Amendment, but it fell three states short of ratification in 1982. New amendments are proposed each year but most do not even get through Congress, and indeed, many do not have sufficient public support to even get the process started. However, there is one possible amendment that receives a good deal of public debate, and that is the possibility of an amendment to provide term limits for congressmen and senators. There is already an amendment that provides such term limits for the President, and there seems to be a fair amount of popular support for a similar amendment to address the issue of legislators who seem to remain in office forever—or at least for their lifetimes.

Currently, members of the House of Representatives serve two-year terms, while U.S. Senators serve for six years. However, there are no limits on how many times they can get re-elected, and some have been in office for 30 years or more. This is not surprising; they become familiar faces and names in their district or state, and they are able to raise money, make contacts and friends within their Party leadership, and as a result, it becomes more and more difficult to successfully run against an incumbent. Frankly, this can lead to individuals who are spending most of their time and energy looking to the next election instead of taking care of the people’s business. Another result of this stagnation is that the longer a legislator is in office, the more favors he or she owes whatever special interest groups are funding the next campaign. There is a perception that certain representatives have been bought and sold by particular special interests.

Based on the number of news articles and editorials on the subject, it would appear that many Americans do support the idea of term limits for all. More frequent turnover in Congress might result in fresher thinking, and if these legislators know that they are in Congress for a limited time and therefore will not need to pander to special interests forever, they might be more proactive and more flexible in their approach to problem-solving. The current gridlock we see in Washington is at least in part a result of everyone wanting and needing to maintain the status quo. However, because few in Congress want to lose their comfortable careers, it is possible that this might be one of those rare amendments that would have to come from the state legislatures rather than expecting representatives and senators to vote themselves out of office.

I believe that the Founding Fathers would support term limits for all who serve in Congress. Just as Jefferson and the rest did not want to establish a monarchy and hereditary nobility, there is no reason to believe that they wanted people to serve in Congress until they were carried out feet-first. It is time to do what we can to ensure that Congress does not lie paralyzed in its own inertia. Term limits will not solve all of these problems, but they are an excellent place to start and should be added to the Constitution in the form of an amendment.