Flag Desecration a Burning Issue Again in Washington

New push for constitutional amendment under way

LIKE an early-summer thunderstorm, the speeches already are crackling in Washington about a proposed constitutional amendment against flag burning. Next week the voting begins, and the outcome could go either way. But whether the federal government ultimately decides to try the complicated process of amending the Constitution for the 27th time probably depends not on Washington's elected but on America's electorate.

In the next weeks of this election year members of Congress will be listening to hear whether voters across the United States say they want a constitutional amendment approved, in the wake of Monday's ruling by the US Supreme Court that a year-old statute against flag burning is unconstitutional. By a five-to-four vote the Court said the statute violates the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.

As members of Congress ``come home and start hearing from people, who will they hear from?'' asks Everett C. Ladd of the Roper Center. Will it be voters deeply offended by the High Court ruling and who demand a constitutional amendment? Or constituents who oppose such action on grounds it would compromise free speech?

Or will most of the public shrug its shoulders and express no opinion - which would argue, to a member of Congress, against amending the Constitution.

It is a situation tailor-made, not only for old-fashioned democracy - individual Americans making their views count - but for lobbies to try to sway members' thinking by representing their members' views as those of the majority of Americans.

Before the public pulse could be measured several government leaders reiterated previous positions.

President Bush, who had called for a constitutional amendment a year ago, repeated that request.

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine, while ``strongly'' condemning flag burning, opposed the amendment because he does ``not believe that we should tamper'' with the Bill of Rights.

House Republican Leader Robert Michel (R) of Illinois pressed for House approval of the constitutional amendment that he, Rep. G. V. Montgomery (D) of Mississippi and 169 other House members cosponsor.

The one-sentence measure reads: ``The Congress and the states shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.''

Next Tuesday the House Judiciary Committee will meet to consider and presumably vote on this measure. If the committee approves, the full House will vote on it within the month, probably the week of June 25.

Senator Mitchell has not yet set a time for Senate action.

A year ago in Washington the flag-burning issue was hot as a magnesium flare, with Americans and their elected representatives clearly in favor of protection from desecration for their nation's flag.

But the issue has been politically lukewarm for months.

Polls last summer showed public support to be ``very large, and I suspect it would be very large today,'' says Dr. Ladd.

What Congress will hear from the public now depends not only on what most Americans feel, but on those who feel so deeply about their opinions that they contact their representatives to express their convictions.

Unfortunately, says Ladd, ``there isn't anything in the [polling] data that helps'' to judge the intensity of Americans' feelings last year or this on the issue.

He says he suspects that a large proportion of last year's pro-amendment Americans only wanted to send a message to the government that they venerate their flag and wish to protect it.

Ladd thinks that a relatively small proportion hold such intense feelings that they would vote against a member of Congress who cast a ballot the ``wrong'' way.

This would be in contrast to the depth of public anger over last year's initial proposal for a congressional pay raise, which constituent pressure forced members to roll back.

If Ladd is correct, members of Congress will face less-intense voter pressure to pass a constitutional amendment than last year's broad public support would have led them to anticipate.

If members perceive that the public is not intently interested, passage of the amendment will be extremely difficult. As an amendment to the Constitution it would require a two-thirds approval in both House and Senate.

Even if an amendment passes that hurdle and is signed, as it would be, by the President, it cannot take effect unless two-thirds of the states also approve it.

Fittingly enough, this Thursday is Flag Day. But the issue will be around Washington longer than a day.

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