George Washington: would he have wanted an amendment to rein in campaign finance spending? Photograph: AP
Despite their all too obvious differences, one surprising policy unites the Democratic and Republican candidates for president: almost all of them want to change the US constitution.
From Bernie Sanders on the left to Ted Cruz on the right, seven of the eight politicians who have declared they are running for the White House have also supported the passage of a constitutional amendment.
Many of the remaining 2016 contenders have proposed this extreme legal option too, along with half a dozen congressmen in recent days, Barack Obama, dozens of states and 600 city councils or county boards.
Of course, not all of them agree on what it is that needs fixing in the 227-year-old document, and fewer still believe it will happen anytime soon, but the upsurge in talk suggests constitutional reform may no longer be the refuge of political kooks.
Some Democrats, such as senator Sanders and Hillary Clinton, have voiced support in recent days for an amendment as a last resort to reduce the power of money in political life, reversing a supreme court decision that removed campaign finance limits.
This week’s new entrants to the 2016 race, Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson, back a long-standing Republican campaign for a balanced budget amendment that would stop Congress racking up the national debt.
Rand Paul wants to change the constitution to limit how long lawmakers can serve in office, while Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have respectively supported amendments to challenge Obamacare and gay marriage.
The current appetite for changing the constitution – a document usually revered as an immutable feature of American political life – is doubly surprising given how futile most attempts at amending it typically prove.
“It is very difficult in practice to change the constitution,” observes Georgetown University law professor Louis Michael Seidman. “It is, by most peoples’ judgement, the hardest constitution in the world to amend. So none of these amendments is likely to be enacted.”
Since it was signed in 1787, the US constitution has been successfully changed only 27 times, and all but two of these attempts took place more than 50 years ago.
Even the last successfully completed amendment in 1992, limiting the ability of lawmakers to set their own salaries, took over two centuries to ratify.
The standard route requires the agreement of not just two-thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives, but three-quarters of the state legislatures too – an all but impossible mountain to climb in these times of national political gridlock.
Unsurprisingly, attempts have dwindled since the heady days of the late 18th century when the first 10 amendments famously enshrined rights such as free speech and the right to bear arms.
Figures compiled by the US Senate show the number of proposals tailing off particularly as Congress has become riven by ever sharper partisan divides – halving from over 150 attempts per two-year term in the 1990s to less than double figures over the last decade and a half.
But constitutional experts say an increase in activity could coincide with the influential campaign for a balanced budget, which claims to be within seven states of the two-thirds majority of state legislatures needed to trigger an alternative method for seeking amendments.
“It’s a little complicated how you count it, but we are getting quite close the numbers requiring a constitutional convention,” says Seidman. “This would be a very dramatic event because it’s not at all clear that the subjects the convention would take up can be limited in advance, so conceivably the convention could – as in 1789 – decide to just scrap the constitution and write an entirely new one.”
Constitution of the United States of America Facebook
The constitution of the United States of America Photograph: US National Archives/Flickr
Few predict anything that dramatic will happen. Triggering a convention is still an enormous long-shot and one that could be easily blocked by challenges in the supreme court, yet its possibility highlights the extent of legal uncertainties.
“Nobody has really thought hard about any of these issues – it hasn’t come up since 1789 – and nobody is paying much attention to it right now,” adds Seidman. “But that’s a possibility that would shake a lot of things loose. It’s possible such a convention would consider things like campaign finance.”
The 1889 painting by Ramon de Elorriaga entitled "The Inauguration of George Washington"
No one is actually suggesting a whole new constitution but, you know, it could happen. Photograph: Ramon de Elorriaga
That would certainly please the other grassroots movements pushing hard for an amendment that sees the dominance of corporate money in politics as just the sort of issues the founders expected to see tackled.
One such group is called Move to Amend. It seeks to reform campaign finance by removing the protected status of corporations which it says lies at the heart of the 2010 supreme court ruling that political campaign spending is a form of free speech protected by the first amendment.
“This movement began with 12 people in a living room, today we are 386,000 people and growing every day,” says spokesman David Cobb.
“Six hundred communities have passed resolutions of support, 16 states on record and over 300 communities have voted on this issue and we have won every single one of them.”
Though such local ballot initiatives carry little to no weight, Cobb views them as a “movement building process” and appears to have been proved right by the recent introduction a similar bill backed by six progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives.
“It’s time to establish once and for all that corporations are not people, money is not free speech, and our elections and public policy-making process are not for sale to the highest corporate bidders,” says one sponsor, Rick Nolan.
“It’s time to take the molding and shaping of public policy out of corporate boardrooms, away from corporate lobbyists, and give it back to the American people.”
Once dismissed as wildly idealistic, such views are increasingly mainstream among Democrats and some Republicans too.
Senator Sanders, who joined the presidential race last week, has authored legislation that seeks to “limit the corrosive influence of money in our democratic process”.
Clinton, a former secretary of state and senator, has said she also wishes to “fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all, even if it takes a constitutional amendment”.
Even Obama has said he “would love to see some constitutional process that would allow us to actually regulate campaign spending the way we used to, and maybe even improve it”.
They also have history on their side when it comes to arguing that the constitution is the appropriate vehicle to tackle conflicts of interest within the branches of government – even if the mountain has never looked harder to climb.
“The majority of [successful] amendments were intended to expand the franchise and to give more people access to the political process – prohibiting denying the vote on the basis of race, on the basis of gender, of age,” says professor Seidman.
“A very large number of them have been pro-democracy, but they were also enacted in a period where there wasn’t the gridlock there is now so there is no reason to be optimistic about any of these amendments passing.”