How to Amend the US Constitution

Two women looking at a display of the US Constitution
National Constitution Center Opens For Preview. William Thomas Cain / Getty Images

​An amendment to the U.S. Constitution revises, corrects, or improves the original document approved in 1788. While thousands of amendments have been discussed over the years, only 27 have been approved and six have been officially rejected. According to the Senate Historian, from 1789 through December 16, 2014, about 11,623 measures to amend the Constitution had been proposed.

While there are five “other” ways in which the U.S. Constitution may be -- and has been -- amended, the Constitution itself spells out the only “official” methods.

Under Article V of the U.S. Constitution, an amendment may be proposed either by the U.S. Congress or by a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the State legislatures. To date, none of the 27 amendments to the Constitution have been proposed by a constitutional convention demanded by the states.

Article V also temporarily banned the amendment of certain parts of Article I, which establishes the form, functions, and powers of Congress. Specifically, Article V, Section 9, clause 1, which prevents Congress from passing laws restricting the importation of slaves; and clause 4, declaring that taxes must be levied according to state populations, were explicitly shielded from Constitutional amendment prior to 1808. While not an absolute ban, Article V also shields Article I, Section 3, clause 1, providing for equal representation of the states in the Senate from being amended. 

Congress Proposes an Amendment

An amendment to the Constitution, as proposed in either the Senate or the House of Representatives, is considered in the form of a joint resolution.

To gain approval, the resolution must be approved by a two-thirds supermajority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Since the President of the United States has no constitutional role in the amendment process, the joint resolution, if approved by Congress, does not go to the White House for signature or approval.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) forwards the proposed amendment approved by Congress to all 50 states for their consideration. The proposed amendment, along with explanatory information prepared by the U.S. Office of the Federal Register, is mailed directly to the governors of each state.

The Governors then formally submit the amendment to their state legislatures or the state calls for a convention, as specified by Congress. Occasionally, one or more of the state legislatures will vote on proposed amendments before receiving official notification from the Archivist.   

If the legislatures of three-fourths of the states (38 of 50) approve, or “ratify” the proposed amendment, it becomes part of the Constitution.

Clearly this method of amending the Constitution can be a lengthy process, however, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated that ratification must be within "some reasonable time after the proposal." Beginning with the 18th Amendment granting women the right to vote, it has been customary for Congress to set a definite period for ratification.

The States Can Demand a Constitutional Convention

Should two-thirds (34 of 50) of the state legislatures vote to demand it, Congress is required by Article V to convene a convention for the purpose of considering amendments to the Constitution.

Similar to the historic Constitutional Convention of 1787, in Philadelphia, the so-called “Article V convention” would be attended by delegates from each state who could propose one or more amendments.

While such Article V Conventions have been suggested to consider certain single issues like the balanced budget amendment, neither Congress or the courts have not clarified whether such a convention would be legally bound to limit its consideration to a single amendment.

While this method of amending the Constitution has never been used, the number of states voting to call an Article V Convention has come close to the required two-thirds on several occasions. In fact, Congress has often chosen to propose constitutional amendments itself because of the threat of an Article V Convention. Rather than facing the risk of allowing the states to take away its control of the amendment process, Congress has preemptively proposed amendments instead.

To date, at least four amendments – the Seventeenth, Twenty-First, Twenty-Second, and Twenty-Fifth – have been identified as being proposed by Congress at least partly in response to the threat of an Article V convention.

Amendments are Big Moments in History.

Recently, the ratification and certification of constitutional amendments have become significant historical events deemed worthy of ceremonies attended by government dignitaries including the President of the United States.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the certifications for the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth Amendments as a witness, and President Richard Nixon, accompanied by three young children, similarly witnessed the certification of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment granting 18-year-olds the right to vote. 

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Longley, Robert. "How to Amend the US Constitution." ThoughtCo, Sep. 4, 2017, thoughtco.com/how-to-amend-the-us-constitution-3322388. Longley, Robert. (2017, September 4). How to Amend the US Constitution. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-amend-the-us-constitution-3322388 Longley, Robert. "How to Amend the US Constitution." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-amend-the-us-constitution-3322388 (accessed November 20, 2017).