The Balanced Budget Amendment: three lessons the ERA could teach the GOP

Though, first of all, they should remember that amending the Constitution is extremely difficult. Since 1789, more than 11,000 amendments have been offered in Congress, but only 27 were ratified by the states. The framers made amending the Constitution almost impossible on purpose, the most utilized way being ratification by two-thirds of the House and Senate and adoption by majority vote in three-fourths of state legislatures.

The balanced budget amendment may be one of those rare amendments that actually could pass because it deals directly with limitations to and expansions of the basic powers of government, a theme of other successful amendments. Unlike the proposed amendments concerning marriage and flag burning, it does not attempt to sneak social policy into the Constitution, a characteristic of unsuccessful amendments, such as prohibition.

The ERA too related directly to the expansion of the rights of citizens in relation to the government, stating simply that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied by the United States or any state on account of sex. It copied the language of the pre-existing Fourteenth Amendment almost exactly. This is one reason why it was initially very popular.

ADVERTISEMENT
But in order to avoid the ERA's fate, the Senators should follow this advice:

(1) Frame it in terms of fundamental American values.

Certainly, Americans of every political stripe have the potential to support a balanced budget amendment. Since every American must balance his or her own household budget, it is not difficult for them to extend this obligation to the government. Fairness, responsibility, and democratic accountability in government are some of the fundamental values implicit in the balanced budget amendment.

The ERA too affirmed a fundamental American value: equality. The ERA also enjoyed initial broad support because it was hard to argue with the abstract ideal of equality. The movement for the ERA was halted when the amendment became no longer about abstract equality but rather how it might concretely impact women's roles. In other words, it eventually became framed as social policy, and people began to think that ERA would force homemakers into the draft and compel them to provide 50 percent of their household income.

(2) Get lots of Democrats to sign on.

Right now, it seems that the balanced budget amendment is mainly a Republican issue. In their article, Senators Snowe and DeMint emphasize that all 47 Republicans have sponsored the amendment in the Senate. They do not mention Democrats.

Initially, the ERA was so successful because it enjoyed broad bipartisan support. But party coalitions underwent some big changes in the 1970s. As the ERA became linked to the women's liberation movement, and as the women's liberation movement became linked to the Democratic Party, so too the ERA became an issue that Republicans would no longer support, even though they were the first party to officially endorse it. That's when it faltered.

(3) Don't let the tea party take hold of the issue.

Fairly or unfairly, the tea party has been framed as a fringe movement. Fiscal responsibility is one of their main themes, so the balanced budget amendment would fit in easily. But to be successful, an amendment needs to maintain a respectful distance from any "far" left of right group.

The ERA also failed because, by the late 1970s, feminist groups, who were portrayed as braless radicals, were doing most of its advocacy work. The ERA was no longer a mass movement but a fringe movement.

The 47 Republicans who are offering the balanced budget amendment may very well just be posturing for the upcoming election season. Their actions to date suggest that this is a strong possibility. If they are indeed just posturing, they will ignore this advice-and citizen supporters of the amendment should not waste their lobbying efforts, banking on it to move forward. But if the Senators are serious, they should remember the lessons of the ERA in their shaping their strategy.

Jill Abraham Hummer is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wilson College.