A candidate who loves amendments.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Catch of the Day: Snake Oil From Clinton and Walker

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Beware of any presidential candidate peddling a constitutional amendment. So a Catch to Kevin Drum of Mother Jones for a good description of why that is:

It's the ultimate in mood affiliation campaigning, backed by the sure knowledge that it's going nowhere and requires no actual work from the candidate aside from occasional applause lines about supporting it.

He’s talking in this case about Scott Walker’s support for a constitutional amendment to overturn a (likely) Supreme Court decision on marriage, but this rule applies equally to Hillary Clinton’s backing of an amendment regulating money in politics.  

Support for a constitutional amendment is a way of ducking an issue. That’s especially true for presidents, who don’t have any formal role in amendments. Congress votes for them and then sends them to the states for ratification. Nor do presidents have any role in the less traditional method in which states petition Congress for a constitutional convention, followed by state ratification.  

Of course, presidents can propose amendments, and they can use whatever clout they have to work for them, but Congress and then state legislators don’t have to pay attention to what the White House is saying.

Suppose it's a member of Congress who is the one pressing for a constitutional amendment? That, too, is suspect. It is usually just a way of avoiding the hard work of getting something done to fix whatever the perceived problem is. Take, for example, the advocates of a balanced-budget amendment who do nothing in the meantime to balance the budget.

This is different from, say, the strategy of anti-abortion activists. They would love to overturn Roe v. Wade by constitutional amendment, but instead of putting all their efforts into fulfilling that impossible dream, they’ve devised an abundant agenda of legislative, legal and activist strategies to at least partially achieve their goals.

Likewise, in Clinton’s defense, her support of changes in campaign finance isn't limited to support for the constitutional amendment. She has pledged that the issue of limiting money in politics would be a litmus test for her when appointing judges -- something well within her ability to do if she becomes president. If support for an amendment is just the cherry on top of a strategy of more achievable plans, the overall plan can be responsible.  

Still, I’d be skeptical of any presidential candidate who touts a constitutional amendment. And if a politician supports more than one, watch out. Nice catch!

  1. In her defense, that is, with regard to procedure. I'm opposed on substantive grounds to her Good Government position on money in politics, but that's a different issue.

  2. Disclosure: I'd like to see a few constitutional amendments myself. For example, I’d drop the minimum age for the presidency, the House and the Senate, and I'd support an explicit right to vote. But I’m not running for office; politicians' responsibilities are different.

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net