A Tennessee congressman has raised eyebrows in a controversial speech to add a 28th amendment to the Constitution. The effort is the latest attempt to change a document that almost seems unchangeable.
Representative Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Nashville, shocked an audience during a 20-minute speech on Wednesday when he told the Nashville Bar Association he wanted an amendment to bar states from passing restrictive voter identification laws.
That in itself wasn’t shocking. But to prove his point about the need for equality in the voting booth, the newspaper The Tennessean says Cooper rattled off a list of slurs against blacks, gays, the disabled, and ethnic groups to show how harmful the words were.
The newspaper says some in the audience were apparently disappointed in Cooper’s illustrative use of the slurs to prove a point they already very much agreed with. We spoke with the Congressman’s office, which said most reaction to the speech was very positive.
Cooper also spoke frankly about race in the South, including the experiences of his father, a former Tennessee governor.
“My father was racist. Of course, he did not think of himself that way—no respectable person does. In his day, the Ku Klux Klan was racist. My father was an attorney who never considered wearing a white hood. My dad could not be racist because, just like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, he had defended a black man accused of raping a white woman. During the 1934 trial in Shelbyville, a lynch mob formed, defeated the Tennessee National Guard, killed two bystanders and burned the courthouse to the ground. My father barely escaped with his life. Nevertheless, my father remained a son of the South,” said.
Cooper was also blunt about the prospects of an amendment passing, saying a “national scandal” like “more Florida elections” would be needed for a voting rights amendment to be ratified.
“How many of you realize that, after the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, seven of the 17 remaining amendments were necessary to expand voting rights? No other part of the original Constitution was so broken or so hard to fix. And more repairs are needed,” said.
Since the Bill of Rights and the first 10 amendments passed in 1791, only 17 amendments have run the gauntlet. And the 18th Amendment, which established Prohibition, was repealed.
The last amendment passed was the 27th Amendment, which was ratified in 1992. It bars Congress from giving itself a pay raise during its current session.
To become part of the Constitution, an amendment must be proposed by two-thirds of the House and Senate, or by a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the state legislatures. It is up to the states to approve a new amendment, with three-quarters of the states voting to ratifying it.
Every year, lots of ideas are floated out about adding a 28th amendment. One recent chain letter on the Internet demanded an amendment that forced senators and House members to be held accountable to the same laws as U.S. citizens.
The urban legend website Snopes.com debunked that letter’s claims (perhaps in record time), saying that Congress members didn’t avoid Social Security and get other financial preferences.
Another recent effort was to introduce an amendment to overturn the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision.
On average, about 200 amendments are proposed in a typical two-year Congress term, and in recent years, the numbers have been lower.
In all, more than 11,000 amendments have been proposed in congressional history, according to the Senate’s historian. Only 92 were proposed in the previous Congress, compared with 153 in the 1991 – 1992 Congress.
Just 34 proposed amendments have been approved by Congress for submission to the states.
Some of the more interesting ones that never made it out of Congress were amendments to get rid of the Senate; to establish a Roman-like three-person council to replace the president; to abolish millionaires; and to change the country’s name to “United States of the Earth.”
And there are some history buffs, as we’ve documented several times, who believe we currently have 28 amendments. One of the 34 amendments that Congress approved for the states to consider was the Titles of Nobility Amendment. It came very close to becoming ratified in 1812, so close that legal books listed it as an approved amendment for decades.
Scott Bomboy is editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
Editor’s note: In upcoming weeks, Constitution Daily will be asking our readers to discuss what amendments they’d like to see in a project called “The Next 10 Amendments.” You’ll be able to discuss 10 key issues and help us frame the wording of these amendments before a national vote in September.
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