In a year it is wrestling with an out-of-control budget, a war going badly, and one impasse on immigration and another on its own ethics, the Senate is taking time out to debate altering the U.S. Constitution by adding the Marriage Protection Amendment.

The amendment is widely predicted to fall short of the needed votes to amend the Constitution for only the 23rd time in its 217-year history _ 13th if you omit the original 10, the Bill of Rights _ and well it should.

At its gravest level, the amendment would make a significant incursion into federalism and state’s rights, taking the Constitution into areas where it was never meant to be, family law and morality. At worst, the amendment trivializes the Constitution by involving that great document in someone’s choice of life partner.

Backers say the amendment protects marriage _ not that there’s any evidence that the traditional marriage needs protecting _ by defining it as the union of a man and a woman. But its real intent is to shortcut any state or local attempt to legalize same-sex marriage.

If same-sex marriages are a true problem _ and the polls show declining numbers who believe they are _ it is still a matter for the states.

President Bush, who also presumably has better uses for his time, made two addresses in three days in support of the amendment, noting that 45 of the 50 states have constitutional amendments or statutes of their own limiting marriage to a man or woman.

This would seem to settle the issue but the president invoked the tired red herring of “activist judges.” This is only a way of saying the issue is still controversial and unsettled and that some of the states are still sorting it out in their own courts. Let them.

A 1996 federal law says the states are not obliged to recognize lawful same-sex unions from other states, and there is no nationwide federal court order reversing that nor is there likely to be.

And Bush said there is nothing in the amendment to stop states from enacting benefits for civil unions and “legal arrangements other than marriages.” This reduces the amendment to a matter of semantics, which is outside _ and far beneath _ the purview of the Constitution.

Only once before was the Constitution used to regulate personal behavior _ banning the consumption of alcohol _ and it failed, leaving a legacy of cynicism toward the law.

In a phrase that is now a cliche, the futile vote on this amendment is designed to “energize the base,” get the blood flowing in the voters, presumably Republicans, for whom outlawing gay marriage is a big deal.

It may be too strong to say that this is a cynical ploy, but it is a cold, shrewd political calculation and both the calculation and the amendment deserve to fail.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)