With a Renewed Potential for Success, the Equal Rights Amendment Ready to Set Off a Period of Structural Reform

Recent renewed energy around the Equal Rights Amendment, which in 1982 fell three states short of the 38 required for ratification, indicates the start of a period of Constitutional reform—seen several times in American history. The American Promise amendment to end the domination of big money in politics could join the ERA and other popular proposed amendments to usher in a new era of equal rights and representation. 

October 20, 1978: Jimmy Carter signs House of Representative Resolution for Equal Rights Amendment. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

This year, Virginia is poised to become the 38th state to vote to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which could make the ERA the 28th Amendment to the Constitution. Proposed by women’s equality advocate Alice Paul, the ERA was first introduced in Congress in 1923. It was subsequently introduced in every session of Congress until 1972, when it was sent to the states for ratification. Today it has been ratified by 37 of the 38 required states. 

The text of the ERA under consideration in Virginia is simple:

Section 1. Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex. 

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

How does the success of the ERA relate to our fight for an amendment to get big money out of politics? Taking a historical look at our nation’s amendments reveals several instances in U.S. history when a handful of amendments have been ratified in fairly rapid succession during what retrospectively become recognized as critical reform eras. 

Three amendments were ratified from 1865 to 1870 after the Civil War ended. Four more became law from 1913 to 1920 at the tail end of the Progressive Era. Two passed in 1933 during the New Deal Era. And four were added to the Constitution from 1961 to 1971 during the Civil Rights Movement. These reform eras account for 13 of the 17 amendments ratified since the Bill of Rights established the first 10. The ratification of the ERA will help trigger another wave of amendments. 

Similar to previous reform eras, most Americans across the nation, regardless of partisan affiliation, are fed up with the current political system. Pacific Standard reports only 28% of Americans are satisfied with our nation’s governance and 71% say our country’s political system “has reached a dangerous new low point.” Furthermore, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey, 61% of Americans believe “significant changes are needed” to improve the “design and structure of American government.”  

What’s more, past reform eras often focused on expanding the definition of equality under the law—ensuring that greater swaths of Americans are guaranteed the protections and representation promised under the Constitution. The ERA, which bars discrimination based on sex, clearly fits this precedent—as does the amendment that American Promise supports to end unlimited big money in our political system.

June 16, 2016: Robyn Leigh Muncy, professor of history at the University of Maryland and E. Faye Williams, national president/CEO of the National Congress of Black Women and former counsel to the U.S. Congress’ District of Columbia sub-committee on the judiaciary and education, engage in a panel discussion titled, “The Equal Rights Amendment: Yesterday and Today,” at National Archives in Washington, DC. (NARA photo by Jeff Reed)

Behind the dysfunction in our federal government lies a system that favors the ultra-wealthy and powerful. The needs of everyday Americans have a near-zero effect on policy outcomes, while economic elites are likely to get what they want from the government. This unbalanced system has been supercharged by Supreme Court rulings that claim unlimited political spending is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. The clear implication of these rulings is that the wealthier a person is, the more speech they have—and the corollary, the fewer dollars a person has, the less political speech she has access to. This clearly undermines the principles of equal representation at the heart of our democracy. 

Other amendment proposals currently gaining traction include establishing congressional term limits, ensuring a balanced federal budget, and differentiating between the rights of legal entities and people—an issue similar to, but distinct from, establishing that money does not equal speech. The Harvard Business School’s U.S. Competitiveness Project believes each of these reforms would help make the United States more competitive on the global stage.

While some proposed amendments contain several of these reforms, most ratified amendments are narrowly tailored to address one specific issue. This suggests that these reforms would each likely be the subject of separate amendments, potentially creating another U.S. reform era when several amendments to the Constitution are passed.

One thing unites nearly every successful amendment and reform era of the past: A broad contingent of Americans working together and speaking out to demand the expansion of rights. Today, cross-partisan frustration has given rise to a movement of Americans ready to usher in a new reform era to address the systemic issues plaguing our government. Through American Promise, this grassroots network of citizens across the nation is working to pass a constitutional amendment to end the domination of big money in politics—what may be one of several amendments that help strengthen and protect the structure of our democracy.

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