In 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to James Madison saying, “Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness; consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances in which it finds itself.”
To translate Jefferson, the Constitution must adapt to the beliefs of each new generation, and it was through this belief that the Constitution was made a “living” document that can be amended.
Since the Constitution was ratified in 1788, the document has only been changed 27 times, with the most recent addition taking place in 1992. However, the meager number of amendments isn’t for a lack of trying. Countless amendments from the reasonable to the outright absurd have died over the years.
Some perished in Congress, and some found their end in the state ratification process. Recently, America has started to take a second look through the figurative amendment graveyard for good ideas that might have been passed over.
The most recent amendment, the 27th, was originally the second amendment proposed at the first Congress. After being defeated, a letter-writing campaign by a University of Texas student renewed enough interest in the amendment to finally get it added some two centuries later.
In 2020, Virginia became the final state to ratify the nearly 50-year-old Equal Rights Amendment even though many politicians believed it to be a failure of the past. The surprising resurrection of previously failed amendments opens the possibility to alter history by delving into the vast repertoire of deceased amendments.
Looking past some of the more outlandishly terrible proposed amendments — like one that would have renamed the U.S. to “The United States of Earth” — there are actually some ingenious common-sense ideas that were passed over. One of those is the idea of congressional term limits.
Throughout the 20th Century, amendments establishing term limits on representatives and senators were proposed multiple times with increasing focus after the Watergate scandal continuing into the 1990s. President Roosevelt was elected to serve an unprecedented four terms, inspiring the 22nd amendment, which established the Presidential two-term limit; however, senators and representatives can currently serve an unlimited number of terms.
Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Don Young have spent nearly 45 and 46 years, respectively, serving uninterrupted in their current positions. With the World Bank reporting the average lifespan of a U.S. citizen at about 79 years, this means that many members of Congress have served over half their life.
Many argue that voters could remove these members from office if they weren’t satisfied with them, but oftentimes, years in power provide these members political advantages that keep them entrenched in Congress. According to CNBC, the average cost of running for Congress keeps increasing and incumbent politicians often have a significant fundraising advantage, locking many potential alternative candidates out of the election. Additionally, incumbent politicians can use the redistricting process to their advantage. As notorious gerrymanderer Thomas Hofeller once said, “Usually, the voters get to pick the politicians. In redistricting, the politicians get to pick the voters.” An amendment limiting how long a member of Congress can serve would allow for a wider variety of voices to be heard in Washington as new members bring their own ideas and experiences to the policymaking process.
Besides congressional term limits, there’s an even more pressing issue that could be solved with a previously proposed amendment — warmongering.
At the start of this year, escalations between the United States and Iran almost led to an armed conflict that would’ve been yet another interventionary exploit. The Constitution explicitly states, “The Congress shall have Power… to declare War,” yet the last time Congress officially declared war was in WWII. That means that countless bloody and violent battles in Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan — just to name a few — weren’t officially considered wars.
The way each of the presidents associated with these wars navigated around Congress was through nomenclature and terminology by referring to these as “armed conflicts” or other deceptive wordings. After the disastrous Vietnam War, Congress attempted to reign in some of this executive overreach through the War Powers Act, which required Congress’ approval of any armed engagement; However, presidents from both sides of the political spectrum have ignored this resolution countless times.
Although the War Powers Act attempted to avert unnecessary wars by giving power back to Congress, it didn’t place any new protections to ensure that Congress acted in the best interests of citizens. In 2001, Congress did approve a war, but through scare tactics and a bully pulpit, war hawks managed to pass the Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution. The resolution turned out to be a blank check which didn’t explicitly state an enemy or a timeline for conflict but instead gave the President the leeway to invade anywhere deemed a “threat” for an indefinite amount of time. This disastrous decision has led to the catastrophe of the Iraq War, the genocide in Yemen and the now 19-year long war in Afghanistan.
Former presidential candidate George McGovern used to say in his stump speeches, “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.” He was referring to the War in Vietnam which, according to a paper from the Research Institute of Industrial Economics, disproportionately forced African-Americans and poorer, rural white citizens to fight in a war, while the richest families, like that of the current president, bought their way out of the war. Time and time again, the powerful senators and representatives that orchestrate and authorize war turn around and delegate the burden of sacrifice to those who had no say in the decision, which is why this country should reconsider, in some form, an obscure amendment from 1916, aptly named the “Put your money where your mouth is amendment.”
This amendment would require all wars and armed conflicts to be put to a vote with those voting “yes” enlisting to fight first. This might not be entirely feasible in its 100-year-old language, but an amendment of this nature would ensure that proper weight is given to the unthinkable decision of war and that the hardships of these wars aren’t disproportionately heaped on marginalized members of society.
The Constitution is the citizen’s document, and in order to keep it that way, there need to be updates that reign in unchecked power and provide accountability and justice to all.
Charlie Jones is a freshman public policy & administration major. Contact Charlie at firstname.lastname@example.org.