Constitutional amendments are oddly popular these days in Republican circles: A Federal Marriage Amendment, a Balanced Budget Amendment, and a constitutional amendment banning abortion have all been part of either congressional proposals or presidential candidate promises.
This is a mistake. Controversial issues such gay marriage, abortion, or massive budget changes are by nature not the sort of proposals that can garner the 2/3rds of both houses of Congress and 3/4ths of the states. Even an amendment that is necessary to produce a better policy than the status quo can be a serious waste of resources and credibility if it has no realistic chance of passing.
To be sure, these amendments have their rhetorical uses for politicians. They are grand gestures that provide an opportunity to show the depth of their commitment to an issue. They allow politicians who believe in federalism but also have strong views on policies that are currently the prerogative of the states, to square the circle and avoid contradictions. They also provide non-lawyers or those appealing to non-lawyers with an opportunity to straightforwardly push their views while staying out of the weeds of constitutional law.
I don’t expect politicians to relinquish these tools overnight. The same pragmatist part of me that insists constitutional amendments are a waste of resources also tells me “So what, they deliver votes” when wearing the political hat instead of the policy hat.
However, we must recognize that these rhetorical advantages come at a price. Many of the Republican Party’s internal problems stem from its failure to deliver on the conservative policies it has promised.
The Tea Party, the Religious Right, and the base might demand these amendments, and politicians might gain short-term advantages from promising them, but eventually, the fact that it is virtually impossible to deliver on these promises will come back to bite them. Furthermore, attempts to fulfill these promises might require trading tangible opportunities or policies for doomed votes.
Republican and Tea Party elites need to manage expectations. The base will not like to hear that realistically, gay marriage and abortion aren’t going to be eliminated by constitutional amendment, and a real balanced budget amendment (despite large amounts of support in theory) is not much more likely.
It will be a serious problem in the long term if the base comes to expect the Republican Party to deliver these amendments. One of the core missions of the Republican Party, the Tea Party, and the right in general is to end unsustainable borrowing from the future to fund policies that won’t work. It’s about time we take a hard look at the costs of borrowing political capital from the future to pursue legislation that won’t pass, because that too is unsustainable.