How To Amend the Constitution

How Difficult Is It To Amendment the Constitution?

Preamble of Constitution
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Amending the Constitution is a necessarily and intentionally difficult thing to do. It's been attempted hundreds of times to address controversial issues from gay marriage to abortion rights to balancing the federal budget. And Congress has been successful only 27 times since the Constitution was signed in September 1787. 

The first ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights because their aim is to protect certain freedoms granted to American citizens and to limit the power of the federal government.

The remaining 17 amendments address a variety of topics including voting rights, slavery and the sale of alcohol.

The first 10 amendments were ratified in December 1791. The most recent amendment, which prohibits Congress from giving itself a pay raise, was ratified in May 1992.

So how is the Constitution amended?

Article 5 of the Constitution outlines the process for amending the document. There are two steps: proposal and ratification.

Step 1: Proposing An Amendment

Either Congress or the states can propose an amendment to the Constitution.

  • Both houses of Congress must propose the amendment with a two-thirds vote. This is how all current amendments have been offered.
  • Two-thirds of the state legislatures must call on Congress to hold a constitutional convention.

Step 2. Ratifying An Amendment

Regardless of how the amendment is proposed, it must be ratified by the States.

  • Three-fourths of the state legislatures must approve of the amendment proposed by Congress, or

Is there a timeline for ratification? The US Supreme Court has held that ratification must happen within "some reasonable time after the proposal." Since the 18th Amendment was ratifed, Congress has set a term of seven years for ratification.

Only 33 amendments have received a two-thirds vote from both Houses of Congress. Of those, only 27 have been ratified by the States. Perhaps the most visible failure is the Equal Rights Amendment.

Article 5 of the Constitution reads:

"The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate."

About the 27 Amendments

Here are summaries of all the constitutional amendments:

  • The 1st Amendment guarantees Americans freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble and freedom to petition the government.
  • allows Americans to own guns.
  • The 3rd Amendment prohibits the government from forcing citizens to house U.S. soldiers in peace time.
  • The 4th Amendment protects citizens against unwarranted police searches and seizures.
  • grants certain rights to Americans who are accused of crimes.
  • The 6th Amendment establishes the rights of citizens who face trials and juries.
  • guarantees the right to a trial by jury in federal civil court cases.
  • The 8th Amendment protects Americans against "cruel and unusual" criminal punishment. 
  • The 9th Amendment states rights not specifically delineated in the Constitution should still be respected.
  • The 10th Amendment grants powers to the states and people when those powers are not allocated to the federal government.
  • sets jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.
  • defines how the Electoral College chooses the President and Vice President
  • The 13th Amendment abolishes slavery.
  • guarantees citizens certain rights at both the state and federal levels.
  • The 15th Amendment bans the use of race as a qualification to vote.
  • The 16th Amendment allows the government to collect income taxes.
  • The 17th Amendment states U.S. senators are to be elected and not appointed by state legislatures.
  • The 18th Amendment, which has been repealed, prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages in what became known as Prohibition.
  • The 19th Amendment prohibited the use of gender as a qualification to vote.
  • deals with when Congress is in session.
  • repealed Prohibition.
  • The 22nd Amendment limits presidents to two four-year terms.
  • gives Washington, D.C., electors in the Electoral College.
  • The 24th Amendment bans "poll taxes."
  • The 25th Amendment delineates the line of succession for president.
  • The 26th Amendment allows 18-year-old citizens the right to vote.
  • The 27th Amendment states members of Congress cannot raise their own salaries.

Why Would the Constitution Need Amended?

Constitutional amendments are highly political in nature. While amendments to the Constitution should be meant as improvements or corrections to the original document, many offered in modern history deal with partisan issues such as making English the official language, banning the government from running budget deficits and allowing prayer in schools.

Can An Amendment Be Repealed?

Yes, any of the 27 constitutional amendments can be repealed by another amendment. Because repealing an amendment requires the passage of another constitution amendment, removing one of the 27 amendments is almost unheard of.

Only one constitution amendment has been repealed in U.S. history. That was the 18th Amendment banning the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States, also known as Prohibition. Congress ratified the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition.

[This article was edited and updated in June 2016 by U.S. Politics expert Tom Murse.]

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