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A Year for Two Amendments: The story of two amendments that were added 100 years ago.

Updated on August 17, 2012

Our Constitution, which went into effect in 1789, is incomplete. It is a flexible document and its interpretation changes because of culture and time. The Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments that guarantee rights to the people, was written as a way of protecting citizens agaisnt governmental control. Several states ratified the Constitution only because of the promise that these amendments would be passed, which they were in 1791.

Changing the Constitution is a hard process. An amendment must be proposed in Congress and passed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress: the House of Representatives and the Senate. (An amendment can also be proposed by a convention called by two-thirds of the legislatures of the states, but this method has never been used.) Once Congress passes the amendment it must be sent to the states for approval. Three-fourths of the states must ratify it within a certain time frame, which is set by Congress and is usually seven years. Today that means 38 states must approve an amendment before it becomes part of the Constitution.

Over 10,000 amendments have been introduced, but only 27 of them became part of the Constitution. Two of them were added a hundred years ago.

The 16th Amendment

The Sixteenth Amendment: "The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes or incomes fom whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration."

An income tax had been employed to raise money during the Civil War and was repealed after the war. At that time the federal government relied mainly on tariffs for revenues. But by the 1890s, a movement grew to return the income tax, especially on the wealthy. In 1894, Congress passed a law imposing a 2% tax on incomes over $4,000, essentially the top 1% of Americans. Tax opponents challenged the law in court, saying the tax was a direct tax, apportioned equally between the states. Of course, that's not possible with an income tax, and the Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional. A way around this was an income tax amendment, which wa accomplished under William Howard Taft's administration.

The 17th Amendment

The Seventeenth Amendment: "The Senate of the United States shal be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years, and each senator shall have one vote. The electors in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislature..."

Besides providing for the direct election of the U.S. senators by the people of a state, the amendment further explains how the governor of a state may fill a vacancy by appointment until an election can be held.

Previous to this amendment, each state legislature voted on its two U.S. senators. Undue influence by political organizations and special interests groups corrupted this system. Senators elected by the people of a state are more responsible to them.


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