If some folks had their way, a three-person tribunal, and not the President, would provide leadership of the “United States of Earth,” in a nation where divorce is illegal.
As we all know, Congress and the states can change the U.S. Constitution through the amendment process, but it doesn’t happen often. And as the cases above show, some proposals stand a better chance than others.
Since the Bill of Rights and the first 10 amendments passed in 1791, only 17 amendments have been added to the Constitution. And one of those, the 18th Amendment establishing Prohibition, was repealed.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.
The bar is high for a proposed amendment to make it to the ratification process. In all, more than 11,000 amendments have been proposed in congressional history, according to the Senate’s historian. Just 37 proposed amendments were approved by Congress for submission to the states; 27 were approved including the Bill of Rights; one amendment in the original Bill of Rights was rejected; and six others congressionally-approved amendments weren’t ratified by the states.
Some of those proposed amendments came close to ratification by three-quarters of the states, including the Equal Rights Amendment, the Titles of Nobility Amendment, and the Child Labor Amendment.
The other 99.7 percent of proposed amendments never made it through a congressional approval or state convention process. For example, in 2006, the Flag Desecration Amendment came within one vote of passing the Senate, after the House approved the measure in 2005.
Many others didn’t quite make it to the debate phase. Take a proposed amendment to make divorce illegal.
A constitutional amendment to regulate marriage and divorce was introduced in Congress annually for about 60 years, starting in the 1880s. No less a figure than President Theodore Roosevelt lobbied for Congress to give itself power over divorces without passing an amendment.
One proposed divorce amendment from 1921 made its intent clear. It read, “Congress shall have power to establish and enforce by appropriate legislation uniform laws as to marriage and divorce: Provided, That every State may by law exclude, as to its citizens duly domiciled therein, any or all causes for absolute divorce in such laws mentioned.”
And then there was the idea of taking manifest destiny worldwide.
In 1893, U.S. House Representative Lucas Miller from Wisconsin proposed renaming the United States as “the United States of the Earth.” His reasoning was, ”it is possible for the Republic to grow through the admission of new States into the Union until every Nation on Earth has become part of it.” After proposing the amendment, Miller wasn’t nominated for a second term in the House.
Another unusual proposed amendment came in 1933, when Representative Wesley Lloyd of Washington state wanted Congress to outlaw millionaires using a constitutional amendment. Lloyd wanted income in excess of $1 million applied to the national debt.
And back in 1876, a citizen named Augustus Wilson wrote Congress to ask for an amendment after the contested Hayes-Tilden presidential election to eliminate the office of President and replace it with a three-person Roman-style triumvirate.
In that same year, the Congressional Record shows that residents of Potter County, Pennsylvania, asked Congress for an amendment to eliminate the Senate and the Presidency. Records at the National Archives show that Pennsylvanians were upset with the Senate because it ”always advanced the interest of the money, railroad and manufacturing speculators to the prejudice of the common welfare.” The proposal never made it to the Senate.
And then there is the Corwin Amendment, which has its own unique history as one of the failed amendments actually approved by Congress, and not ratified by three-fourths of all of the states.
Two states (and possibly a third) did ratify the Corwin Amendment, which was approved by Congress in 1861 and guaranteed the right of states that legalized slavery to keep “persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.” It was passed by Congress two days before Abraham Lincoln became President.
In the current 113th Congress, there are proposed amendments to force the government to balance its budget or to allow for an amendment about campaign financing.
But there are other proposed amendments to repeal the 22nd Amendment (so a President can serve unlimited terms); eliminate the 16th Amendment and income taxes; impose term limits on Senate and House members; and a bid to outlaw same-sex marriages nationally.
The last time an amendment was approved by Congress was the District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment, which was passed in 1978 and expired unratified in 1985.
Scott Bomboy is editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.
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