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Making amends

IT'S now been 15 years since a constitutional amendment has been sent to the states by Congress and approved by the requisite number of states. Not big news, perhaps, except that that has been the longest time span between amendments in this century. The shortest span between amendments was a year. The amendment process has a tendency to run in cycles. The Bill of Rights and the 11th and 12th Amendments came within 15 years of the Constitution's taking effect; then came the three Civil War and Reconstruction amendments, followed 40 years later by four reform amendments of the Progressive movement.Three amendments would be added from 1932 to 1951, four from 1960 to 1971.

More than 1,800 amendments were proposed in Congress in the 19th century, but only four were successful, whereas the 20th century's smaller pool has brought forth 11 additions to the Constitution. And reasonable observers might conclude that the more recent amendments may not have been necessary anyway. The most obvious example is the Prohibition Amendment, which was later repealed. But what about the 17th Amendment, providing for the direct popular election of senators? By the time of its proposal in 1912, 29 states were already choosing their senators that way.

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A good case can be made -- conceivably by President Reagan -- that the 22nd Amendment limiting a president to two terms was an anti-Franklin Roosevelt device that would not stand the test of time.

Even the 25th Amendment, which allows for appointment of a vice-president and deals with transfer of powers in case of presidential incapacity, may have been unnecessary, given the fact that ever since 1792 congressional legislation has handled this matter. What is more, the inordinate detail of the amendment, making it one of the longest, still may not cover all eventualities.

The moral of all this may well be that the Constitution requires little maintenance, although most Americans would probably not agree with a mid-19th-century congressman who proposed that the preceding articles of the Constitution ``shall be unamendable.''

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

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