Within a year or two, the thirty-eighth state is likely to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), setting up an unprecedented constitutional challenge. The ERA was proposed with a seven-year deadline in the resolving clause, establishing the mode of ratification. That was a shift from earlier precedents in which a deadline had been placed in the text of the amendment proposal itself. Article V is annoyingly silent on the issue of congressional deadlines in amendment proposals, and the Supreme Court has never addressed the issue of a deadline that could void an otherwise properly ratified amendment. The practice of placing deadlines on amendment proposals began in 1917 with the Eighteenth Amendment, but has not been consistent since. Deadlines appear to have originated as an effort to torpedo amendments by opponents, but have since become almost pro forma. Some argue deadlines ensure finality and closure; others argue they infringe on the power of states to control the ratification process free of unconstitutional limitations imposed by the national legislature.
With the 1992 ratification of the Twenty-Seventh Amendment after 203 years, and state ratifications of the ERA after 35 years, the issue of congressional deadlines is both front and center and of potentially enormous consequence. This Article examines the history, theory, and policy of amendment deadlines and argues that they are unconstitutional limitations on state power, inconsistent with the federalism guarantees of the founding. This issue will almost certainly require resolution by the Supreme Court, which needs to give the issue of congressional deadlines its most thoughtful attention.