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In the Pursuit of Amendment, Politics Once Took a Back Seat


When the Virginia planter and patriot George Mason failed in his first attempt to have a Bill of Rights added to the U.S. Constitution, no one said, "Well, Mr. Mason, there goes the presidency."

Nor would he have cared much if someone had. Unlike today, shaping and reshaping government was mercifully free of presidential politicking. Personal ambition was apparently not a motive for George Mason, who declined to serve even in Congress.

What a difference 200 years makes.

After the balanced budget amendment was defeated recently in the U.S. Senate, the failure was scrutinized almost as much for its political impact as for its impact on the nation and the nation's most fundamental governing document.

Was Sen. Bob Dole worried about losing ground among Republicans to Sen. Phil Gramm and others? Did the senator relish the thought of maneuvering President Clinton into opposing a popular idea?

Mr. Dole says he was worried about the debt. Interest payments this year will exceed $234 billion -- more than the spending on agriculture, crime-fighting, veterans, space and technology, infrastructure, natural resources, the environment, education and training combined.

But he sustains the political focus when he threatens to bring the amendment back during the 1996 election season on the theory that Democrats would feel more pressure then to support it.

As committed as he undoubtedly is to the control of government spending, his efforts are clouded by the impending election of 1996 and his own candidacy.

Are arguments for the amendment sufficiently compelling to warrant the loss of financial flexibility in time of war or deep depression? The Dole response was lost in a fog of polling data in support of the change.

George Mason was free of such burdens. His amendments were based on fear of centralized power. His Federalist opponents, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and others, argued that the amendments Mason wanted were implied in the grand sweep of the Constitution. That view and Mason's were accepted on their merits, not in the context of a political campaign.

This was so not because the framers of the Constitution were apolitical. Far from it. But everyone knew that George Washington would be president, a situation that relieved everyone else of maneuvering for the job. Madison, Hamilton and Mason were free to think without immediate concerns about leadership.

Presidency settled

"The Constitution probably would not have been ratified without the confidence that Washington would be the president and keep everything on an even keel," says Josephine Pacheco, an emerita professor of history at George Mason University, who has written a biography and several considerations of Mason's life.

"What people worried about, people like Mason," she says, "was whether you could hold states together and at the same time preserve the freedoms won in the Revolution. They didn't want a government so strong that it put us back where we were when the British were here."

Early drafts of the Constitution were unacceptable to anti-Federalists like Mason because, he argued, they did not achieve that balance.

Concerns about the power of big government drive today's effort to alter the Constitution. Advocates of change say the evidence left by a generation of incorrigible spenders proves that special interests cannot be resisted by politicians determined to stay in office.

But Dr. Pacheco finds the constitutional remedy for lapses of will a curious one. "I cannot for the life of me see why people who think of themselves as conservatives want to tamper with the Constitution in such a radical way." She feels the framers would not have approved.

"I'm quite certain they would have found this minutia was totally and completely irrelevant," she said. "What they were trying to do was set up a framework for governing. Then you left it to the judgment of people to make decisions about government. You don't want to make the Constitution a straitjacket. You want to make it a document that could adjust to changing circumstances -- which is the beauty of it."

Waggish critics say the amendment is "a bad idea whose time has come." Mr. Dole says its time should have come much earlier -- and almost did. He quotes Thomas Jefferson, speaking just after the Constitution went into effect:

"The question whether one generation has the right to bind another by the deficit it imposes is a question of such consequence as to place it among the fundamental principles of government. We should consider ourselves unauthorized to saddle posterity with our debts, morally bound to pay them ourselves."

How would George Mason have felt? It was his contention that the Constitution had to include explicit guarantees, statements of rights that should not be dependant on the exercise of political judgment. Would he have felt that a balanced budget amendment was a prudent course to take now?

Dr. Pacheco's colleague at George Mason, Peter Henriques, says the founders knew they could not establish immutable guidelines. They would have been "appalled" at the nation's enormous debt, he says. Yet, to ask how they would have felt about a balanced budget amendment is like wondering how they would have viewed abortion. Myth and patriotic folklore aside, they did not imagine they could write a document that would be a sufficient guide centuries later.

"In one of the great debates of the day, Madison said that ambiguity is the price of unanimity. There were a number of things they deliberately made vague because they could not agree. If they made it too explicit they couldn't get it approved." They could not be satisfied with making points; they wanted the document adopted; they yearned for unity and did not take it for granted.

Drafters and amenders

A striking difference between the drafters and the current amenders, Dr. Pacheco says, is experience. Mason and his colleagues were not endowed by their creator with knowledge of how the political world works. They had gained it in life.

"This is one of the points I think is most relevant," she said. "All of the men who went to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia had practical political experience." Many of the nation's newest leaders and most zealous budget amendment backers have no political experience -- and offer that as a qualification even as they praise the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.

George Mason had been responsible for the adoption many years earlier of Virginia's Declaration of Rights, an effort that foreshadowed his later effort. Several other states had adopted similar statements. People wanted assurances.

And they observed what the framers did far more closely than Americans watch today, Dr. Pacheco says. "The electorate was better informed about the complexities of government than they are today. People didn't have so many distractions. Politics was good entertainment."

Fewer citizens could read, but they could all go to a tavern and hear a discussion of that day's stories in the Virginia Gazette or the Pennsylvania Packet.

Many newspapers of the time carried the "Federalist Papers," essays written by Hamilton and Madison and John Jay to explain what the Constitution did and did not do.

Compared with the days of the country's birth, the political speech of today is both prosaic and timid, Dr. Pacheco says. "No newspaper today would print the kinds of things that were printed at the end of the 18th century," she says. "We're much too careful."

To be sure, Mr. Dole occasionally offers a thrust evocative of earlier times. When he was asked why the Congress didn't simply pass budget cuts and send them to the White House, he said, "If we had a real president down there we might have tried that."

Dr. Pacheco sees another striking difference between the mood of the earliest days of the republic and that of today: Along with government itself, the spirit of compromise has come into disrepute.

"So much of our history has to do with compromise," Dr. Pacheco says. "You do what is politically possible.

"When our government has worked, it has worked when people were willing to make compromises."

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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