Formal Amendment: Definition & Process

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy

Mark has a Ph.D in Social Science Education

Learn about formal amendments and the way in which the process of creating an amendment works. Once you've discovered how this fundamental part of the American government works, you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

The Constitution

Say what you want about the Constitution, but it's pretty durable. Written over two centuries ago, there have been only 27 permanent changes made to the document itself -- and 10 of those were made almost before the ink was dry. And one of them, the 21st Amendment, exists only to eliminate another, the 18th Amendment. Most of us make more changes when writing a couple of paragraphs. How is it that this system of government has stayed so unchanged, while the world around it has changed so much?

Part of it is because Americans, in spite of the griping they do about their government, actually quite like the institutions that represent them, just not always the people that do the representing. The other reason, frankly, is that changing the Constitution is really difficult. Understanding the amendment process means not only knowing the nuts-and-bolts of editing the document itself but also recognizing that if you want to do it, you have to really, really want it.

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  • 0:01 The Constitution
  • 1:03 Formal Amendment Process
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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The Formal Amendment Process

If you want to add an amendment to the Constitution, you have to start in one of two places. First, and most commonly, you can start in either the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate - it doesn't matter which; you'll have to go through both. If you're not a representative or senator yourself, you'll have to get one to propose the amendment for you. Once that's done, you'll need to get a two-thirds' majority to approve it. This is an important point: practically anything else the Congress accomplishes is by majority rule, which means fifty percent plus one. Then it goes to the other House and has to pass there.

The only other route to propose an amendment is through a national convention, at the request of two-thirds of the states. This is sometimes called an Article V convention, since the process is described in Article V of the Constitution. Though a number of states have individually requested an Article V convention, and several times that number has almost reached the necessary two-thirds' threshold, it has never occurred, and the Constitution has never been amended by national convention. However, a few of the amendments - notably the 25th Amendment, which established the line of succession after the president - were passed, at least in part, because of the possibility of a national convention.

If you've gotten this far, and the amendment is successfully proposed, you probably feel pretty good about yourself…but unfortunately, the real work is just beginning. Now you have to go through ratification, and this is going to make the idea of a two-thirds' majority seem like a cakewalk.

For proposing an amendment, you need two-thirds' approval. To actually ratify - that is, to formally adopt - you will need three-fourths majority from all the states. There are two ways to get that approval: either in each state's legislature (the most common way) or in special state ratifying conventions. This has happened only once, with the 21st Amendment which removed the 18th Amendment from the Constitution.

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