Amending The U.S. Economy

March 05, 1995|By THOMAS V. DiBACCO

The U.S. Senate's rejection of the balanced budget amendment on Thursday marked nearly the 2,000th time Congress has tried to cure the nation's economic ills through constitutional prescriptions.

The only money amendment ever approved by Congress and the states was the income tax amendment. But it wasn't supposed to have been ratified. In fact, when the measure was introduced in 1909, the federal Treasury was overflowing with dough, thanks to hefty revenues from tariffs and excise taxes. Backed by struggling Democratic-allied Western and Southern farmers, the amendment was a punitive measure aimed at industrialists whose rich and famous lifestyles underscored the enormous disparity of incomes.

It received bipartisan support because Republicans thought it would never be approved by three-fourths of the states. After receiving overwhelming approval by Congress (77-0 in the Senate, 318-14 in the House), the amendment failed to get the necessary state approvals. But when reform Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912, the rush to ratify became a sort of status symbol. By February 1913, what had been a lost cause became a part of the Constitution. Eventually, this tax, which originally targeted the rich, was broadened to include common folk with modest incomes.

In retrospect, one amendment proposed in 1861 would have made all the current fuss over a balanced budget amendment unnecessary, thereby saving a lot of congressional time and money. The Constitution henceforth, it read, "shall be unamendable."

In the 1800s, Congress tried several times to prohibit the awarding of federal prizes, pensions and grants to individuals and corporations.

Then it proposed saving money by eliminating certain federal offices, including the vice presidency. In fact, it tried seven times to eliminate the post. And some congressional members were absolutely convinced that boom-bust cycles could be eliminated an amendment authorizing uniform laws on marriage and divorce.

In 1808, a legislator thought the $25,000 annual salary Congress had awarded to retired Presidents George Washington and John Adams was much, too much for taxpayers to shell out. So he proposed a stipend of only $15,000 -- a sum he wanted carved in stone through a constitutional amendment.

Even President Ulysses S. Grant got in on the amendment process to rescue the country from last-minute Congressional pork-barreling. In 1873, he proposed a constitutional amendment saying "there should be no legislation in Congress during the last twenty-four hours of its sitting. . . ."

Congress put most of the constitutional blame for the nation's economic woes in the 19th century on the president. Its rationale went something like this: Presidents were nominated by political parties; party bosses greased their palms by getting presidential favors; and the pilfering led to hard times. The solution focused on changing the election process.

Two amendments emphasized elections by lot. In the first, senators would be reduced to three-year terms, with one-third retiring annually. From the retirees the president of the United States would be chosen according to the following method:

Each senator, in alphabetical order, would draw a marble out of a box. The person selecting the one brightly colored marble would be president. To be sure, this was a revolutionary change, but in the words of the amendment's sponsor, it was the only way out:

"I should not have proposed this mode," he said, "if any other could have been devised which would not convulse the whole body politic, set wide open the door to intrigue and cabal, and bring upon the nation incalculable evil, evils already felt, and growing more and more serious."

The second scheme was a bit more complicated. Each state would nominate a presidential candidate. The number of marbles placed in the national box representing all the state nominees would be proportional to the number of senators and representatives.

Thus if a state had eight representatives in addition to its two senators, 10 marbles would be boxed for the state's nominee. When this amendment was proposed in 1844 and again in 1846, there were two stumbling blocks, however. Marbles were in short supply in this early industrial era. And there was no agreement on the method for selecting the person in charge of the drawing.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University in Washington.

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