The Process of Amending the Constitution

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  • 0:03 Constitutional Amendments
  • 1:55 Proposing an Amendment
  • 3:11 Ratifying an Amendment
  • 4:59 The Bill of Rights
  • 7:11 Other Amendments
  • 8:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Amending the United States Constitution is a complicated process. It's only been accomplished 27 times. This lesson outlines the process by which the U.S. Constitution can be amended.

Constitutional Amendments

Our United States Constitution has been in operation since 1789. That's well over 200 years! But it's only been changed a handful of times. With all the cultural changes we've experienced over the last 200 years, why has the Constitution stayed largely the same?

When we make a change or addition to the United States Constitution, it's known as 'amending' the Constitution. Any addition is treated as extra language, added onto the end of the Constitution, and is known as a constitutional amendment. Surprisingly, we have only 27 constitutional amendments.

That's because amending the Constitution is a complicated process. The Constitution's Article V lays out the process by which the Constitution may be amended. There are actually four different ways, but only one is widely used:

  • Proposal by convention of the states, with ratification by state conventions. This method has never been used.
  • Proposal by convention of the states, with ratification by state legislatures. This method has also never been used.
  • Proposal by Congress, with ratification by state conventions. This method has been used one time.
  • Proposal by Congress, with ratification by the state legislatures. This method was used for all current amendments except one.

Proposing an Amendment

Let's take a look at the more common methods. The first step requires that a constitutional amendment be suggested. Most commonly, this means a federal legislator or legislative committee puts forward a bill asking for an amendment. To be officially proposed, the bill must pass both houses of legislature, with a two-thirds majority in each. Notice that the entire Congress is involved in this process. When both the House of Representatives and the Senate approve by a two-thirds majority vote, it's known as a joint resolution.

This is the way all of our current constitutional amendments have been proposed. However, there is a second way in which a constitutional amendment may be proposed. Two-thirds of the states can ask Congress to call a constitutional convention in order to propose amendments. A constitutional convention is simply a gathering for the purpose of writing a new constitution or revising an existing constitution. Again, note that this method has never been used to amend our Constitution.

Ratifying an Amendment

Once the bill passes both houses, the proposed amendment goes to the individual states for their consideration. Notice that the proposed amendment doesn't need the president's signature, like other bills. Instead, the proposed amendment passes directly to the states. This step is called ratification. To be ratified, three-fourths of the state legislatures must approve the proposed amendment. This is the method used in almost all of our current amendments.

Only the 21st Amendment, repealing prohibition, was ratified through 'ratifying conventions.' This means the bill required three-fourths of the states to approve the proposed amendment by holding special state legislative gatherings.

Starting with the 18th Amendment, the Supreme Court held that states must ratify a proposed amendment 'within some reasonable time.' However, the 'reasonable amount of time' has never been specifically defined. For the 18th, 20th, 21st and 22nd amendments, Congress set the ratification period at seven years. Other amendments didn't have a specified time period.

Note that thousands of these bills asking for an amendment have been considered over the past two centuries. Of those, only 33 received the necessary two-thirds vote in Congress to become an officially proposed amendment. Of those, only 27 were ratified to become constitutional amendments.

The Bill of Rights

Now let's take a look at some of our most famous constitutional amendments. Keep in mind that all amendments were made for a specific reason, like overruling a Supreme Court decision or compelling a societal change.

Our first ten constitutional amendments are known as the Bill of Rights. The first Congress considered these ten amendments at its first meeting. When ratifying the Constitution, many states proposed that a Bill of Rights be added. This led to 17 suggested amendments, with 12 receiving the proper vote needed to become officially proposed amendments. The states ratified all but the first two in 1791, leaving 10 constitutional amendments.

Notably, the second proposed amendment, which prevents members of Congress from granting themselves pay raises during the current session, was ratified in 1992 to become the 27th Amendment. This amendment clearly didn't have a specified time period for ratification!

Briefly, our Bill of Rights includes:

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