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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Constitutional Convention Constitutional Convention — Other Lessons

Student Exercise in Democracy

In this article, Cathy Travis, a long-term Congressional staff person for Congressman Solomon Ortiz (D-Tex.), presents a lesson on how to amend the U.S. Constitution and engages students in consideration of the pros and cons of potential new amendments. She focuses particularly on current topics and those of special interest to students, e.g., the voting age, smoking, campaign finance. The lesson is written in a manner that can be shared directly with students.

Student Exercise in Democracy
excerpted from Constitution Translated for Kids by Cathy Travis. Dayton, Ohio: Oakwood Publishing, 2001. Pages 69-72, 75-77.

If you had the chance to add to the United States Constitution now, or in the next few years, to improve or perfect our democracy, what would you want to add?

Since the Constitution is not finished, what are some other ideas for amendments to the Constitution? Debate them to understand why some things are just too hard to get agreement by two-thirds of any group.
Remember that the Constitution has only been amended 27 times in over 200 years, so an amendment should be extraordinarily necessary to make it part of the Constitution. Also remember that the Founders gave Congress the ability to make laws to deal with anything they saw fit, so just about any issue people want to add to the Constitution can be dealt with by passing a law.

In every debate about a new amendment, the most important question is: how vital is this that it must be added to the Constitution, or can Congress or local governments just make a law or a rule to deal with this issue?
Assume your group has succeeded in convening a constitutional convention. Below are suggestions for amendments, along with a suggestion or two to consider as arguments for and against the various amendments. Don’t limit anyone’s imagination by only using these suggestions or by sticking strictly to the way it is written.

If you can get two-thirds of any group to support any of these amendments, remember the actual process of adopting an amendment to the United States Constitution would also require that the amendment be adopted by two-thirds of the United States Congress and three-fourths of the states as well. 1

Incidentally, many of these amendments are actually proposed by someone in Congress or the states to amend the Constitution.

Proposed Amendment: The Balanced Budget Amendment
What it is: This amendment requires the government of the United States to balance the budget of the United States every single year from now on.

Points to discuss for the amendment:

  • The United States should never spend more money than it takes in; that just makes good sense.
  • Families have to balance their budgets, so why can’t the government?

Points to discuss against the amendment:

  • What if the United States goes to war, or has a national emergency like a hurricane or floods, or something that would require us to spend more money than we have right then to further the national cause?
  • Most families carry some sort of debt, either a mortgage on their house, a car note, or some credit card bills.

 


 

Proposed Amendment: Protection of the United States Flag
What it is: Burning the American flag will never be permitted and anyone who does that will be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

Points to discuss for the amendment:

  • The flag is the symbol of the country, and burning it diminishes the nation.
  • People who burn the flag are traitors and deserve punishment for disrespecting the flag.
  • Our flag flies over people who fight for our nation; burning it demeans their effort.

Points to discuss against the amendment:

  • The Constitution is the foundation of the country and the flag, while inspirational, is only a piece of cloth.
  • The Constitutional lays out a clear definition of what treason is: to aid and comfort enemies. Burning a flag doesn’t comfort an enemy; more likely it would just confuse them.
  • There is not currently a problem with lots of people burning flags. Why amend the Constitution to tend to a problem that doesn’t exist?

 


 

Proposed Amendment: Campaign Finance Amendment
What it is: All candidates for federal office must accept limits on the amount of money they can spend on campaigns for office. Congress, along with the states, gets to decide what that limit is and how candidates can get money for campaigns.

Points to discuss for the amendment:

  • Far too much money is collected by candidates for federal office each year, largely from corporations and businesses—organizations that will be governed by the rules made by the Congress and the President.
  • Democracy is hurt when money has more influence on elections than voters.

Points to discuss against the amendment:

  • Everybody in our democracy, including companies and businesses, should be able to participate in elections, to whatever extent they choose.
  • Our laws have never been more strict on how candidates can collect and spend money. It does not need to be, and should not be, part of the Constitution.

 


 

Proposed Amendment: Lowering Voting Age to 16
What it is: This amendment will offer the right to vote to 16-year-old citizens.

Points to discuss for the amendment:

  • People mature earlier now, and 16-year-old people are better educated and should have the opportunity to vote for people who are making decisions on their behalf.
  • Some 16-year-olds work and pay taxes.

Points to discuss against the amendment

  • Most 16-year-olds are not that mature and haven’t even gotten out of high school yet. We should be very careful how young our electorate may get.
  • The age of 18 is generally the age of reason in our laws. The consent to marry, to make health-related decisions, and to be drafted for war begins at age 18.

 


 

Proposed Amendment: Prohibition of Tobacco
What it is: This amendment will make the growing, possession, or selling of tobacco illegal in every U.S. state and territory.

Points to discuss for the amendment:

  • We abolished alcohol once, so this has been done.
  • Doctors have been telling us for years that tobacco is deadly; this is not just a bad habit, it is killing people, and costing us billions of dollars in health care costs.

Points to discuss against the amendment:

  • The best evidence against this amendment is the existence of the 21st Amendment.
  • Attempts to prohibit tobacco will only make it more expensive and jail tobacco farmers and smokers.

Editor’s Notes:

  1. Note that in addition to the amendment procedure in which 2/3rds of the Congress agrees on an Amendment, Article V provides that if 2/3rds of the states so ask Congress, Congress shall call a constitutional convention for the purpose of amending the Constitution.
  2. Under “Points to discuss against the amendment,” in relationship to the proposed amendment to protect the American flag, you might add: Contradicts the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech, since flag burning may be considered a form of political “speech” or expression.

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