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Changing The Constitution: Your Guide To The Amendment Process

As wise as our Founding Fathers were, they would be the first to admit that they were not infallible. Thus when they drafted the Constitution, they left it open to amendments, creating two different mechanisms by which the American people could change it. This has allowed our governing document to expand over time, adapting to two hundred years of social, political, and economic changes. By understanding the amendment process, you can follow efforts to change the Constitution and assess their chances of succeeding.

The Main Method

The primary way to amend the Constitution involves coordination between Congress and state legislatures, with super-majorities of both required to approve the measure. For an amendment to pass in this way, it must go through the following steps:

  • Initial Introduction- A member of the Senate or the House of Representatives must propose the amendment before their chamber. It is then sent to a Congressional committee other pieces of legislation would be; the committee can approve or deny it, and may make changes to improve its chances of passing.
  • Congressional Confirmation- As with any legislation, both houses of Congress must pass a constitutional amendment for it to become law. Whereas most bills require only simple majorities, constitutional amendments need two-thirds majorities in both houses. At present, this means that 67 Senators and 290 Representatives must vote in favor of an amendment for it to pass this stage. Unlike with ordinary legislation, the President of the United States cannot veto amendments.
  • State Scrutiny- If a proposed amendment passes Congress, it goes to state legislatures, which must vote whether to approve or reject it. Three-fourths of the states, or 38 states, must vote for an amendment to become part of the Constitution.

Because of the need for both congressional and state super-majorities, the overwhelming majority of proposed constitutional amendments do not become law. As of 3 January 2017, only 27 of the 11,699 proposals to amend the constitution have succeeded. Most proposed amendments do not even make it past their congressional committee, and even those that Congress passes have a hard time surviving state scrutiny.

State Sovereignty

Although the vast majority of attempted and successful amendments have involved Congress, state legislatures technically have the power to change the constitution on their own. To do this, legislatures in two-thirds of the states, or 34 states, must vote to hold a convention similar to the Convention of 1787 that created the Constitution in the first place. If enough states vote in favor, a convention is invoked, where states can propose amendments. Proposals must then be ratified by 38 state legislatures just as a congressional amendment would.

While this method is legal under the Constitution, attempts to use it are highly controversial. Many prominent political figures, both liberal and conservative, fear that holding a Convention would open the door to radically changing the original Constitution or even abandoning it entirely. These concerns help to explain why this method is so rare: even those who fervently want to pass an amendment are not willing to risk undermining the foundations of American governance.

Changes Considered

There are currently 27 Amendments to the Untied States Constitution. Notable examples include:

  • The Bill Of Rights- The first 10 amendments to the constitution are collectively known as the Bill of Rights. They establish the key rights and freedoms of the American people, including freedom of speech, freedom from established religion, the right to bear arms, and freedom from warrantees searches. They also govern the relationship between different levels of American government, specifying that any powers the Federal government does not have automatically belong to the states or the people. These amendments were passed shortly after the Constitution itself was ratified in order to assuage fears that the Federal government would oppress the people.
  • The 13th Amendment- Passed at the end of the United States Civil War, this amendment abolished slavery and indentured servitude throughout the United States. This assuaged fears that rebel states would re-institute slavery after rejoining the Union.
  • The 14th Amendment- Among other provisions, this amendment defined US citizens as anyone born or naturalized in the United States. Originally intended to provide citizenship to former slaves, it has since formed the basis of American immigration policy.
  • The 15th Amendment- This amendment specified that race, color, and previous enslavement were not valid bases for denying male American citizens the right to vote. Although approved in 1870, this provision was not effectively enforced in much of the United States until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
  • The 18th & 21st Amendments- The 18th Amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol in the United States. Passed in 1920, this measure spurred an increase in organized crime, as cartels sought to meet the continuing demand for alcohol. This produced a backlash against the law, leading to the passage of the 21st Amendment that repealed most of its provisions. This makes the 21st Amendment the only one to reverse a previous amendment.
  • The 19th Amendment- Passed in 1920, this amendment prohibited sex discrimination in voting rights.
  • The 27th Amendment- This amendment prohibited increases in salary for members of Congress from going into effect until after the next congressional elections. Passed in 1992, it is the most recent change to the Constitution.

Dozens of new constitutional amendments are proposed every year, and while most of them will fail, sooner or later one will succeed. The US Constitution is thus a living document, subject to change whenever enough Americans think it necessary.


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