Constitution 101: Amending the Constitution

The Constitution has a procedure for making amendments but it is hardly ever used – 27 times in 200 years! But those amendments have expanded civil rights and changed the structure of government. How have the amendments changed the Constitution?  Find out in part 14 of Legal Lad’s series about the U.S. Constitution.

Adam Freedman
February 8, 2013

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Today’s Topic: Constitution 101 – Amending the Constitution

And now, your daily dose of legalese: This article does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

Constitution 101

This is the 14th installment of a new series on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. For more on the Constitution, you can check out my new book, The Naked Constitution: What the Founders Said, and Why it Still Matters.

The Constitution of the United States is one of the most remarkable and influential documents in human history.   If you’ve been listening to my series about the Constitution, I hope you’ll agree that it deserves that reputation. However, the Constitution is not a static document that must be preserved without alteration. To the contrary, the framers of the Constitution envisioned that the document would need the occasional update and devoted an entire section – Article V – to explaining the mechanics of updating the Constitution.

Two Methods to Amend

Article V provides two methods for initiating constitutional amendments. The first method starts with Congress. If two-thirds of both Houses approve an amendment, it will be submitted to the states for ratification. 

An Amending Convention?

But there is an alternative. If two-thirds of the state legislatures apply to Congress for a Convention to propose amendments, then Congress is obliged to call such a convention. The convention could then propose various amendments. Under either method – Congress or Convention – a proposed amendment does not become part of the Constitution until it has been ratified by three-fourths of the states, either by vote of the state legislatures, or by state ratification conventions.

So far, only the Congressional method has been successful. Of the twenty-seven amendments that have been ratified, all of them started in Congress. Congress has come close to calling for an amending convention, most recently in the early 1980s when thirty two states applied for a convention to consider a balanced budget amendment – just two states shy of the two-thirds needed. Today, there is a grass roots movement to promote an Article V convention.

The Bill of Rights

The most famous amendments are the first ten, dubbed the “Bill of Rights” after a somewhat similar charter of liberties drawn up by the English Parliament in 1689. Oddly enough, Congress originally recommended a slate of eleven amendments, but one of them did not get ratified with the others. It was resurrected two centuries later and ratified as the twenty-seventh amendment on May 7, 1992. It says that if Congress votes itself a pay raise, it can’t take effect until after the next election.


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