What Is The Constitutional Amendment Process?

Constitutional Amendment Definition

The amendments to the Constitution are vital laws that changed the rights of citizens. They also allowed for a more equal society and generally updated the original document.

What is an amendment?

So, what is the constitutional amendment process to turn proposed bills into legal changes to the Constitution?

The constitutional amendment process requires complex steps before the Constitution can change.

Amendment Process

At its core, the constitutional amendment process is one of just two steps. They are adoption and ratification. However, the work and time that goes into completing each step mean that few get through.

Why are so few constitutional amendments successful?

There could be countless proposals brought to Congress, but without a successful adoption and ratification process, they cannot become law. It is a drawn-out approach requiring different bodies and majority votes to ensure the best democratic result. Still, this does mean that the Constitution remains relatively unchanged since its conception.

So far, the US has seen very few amendments ratified and added to the Constitution.

A report in 1924 on the subject of amending the Constitution highlighted the idea that there was an “increasing tendency to amend” the Constitution as five new articles had been adopted in the 15 years prior. Yet, there are actually very few amendments. There are currently 27 in total and the last of these to achieve ratification did so in 1992. Only 33 proposals were put forward through the adoption process.

However, that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been many proposals submitted for adoption. For example, in 1924 there were 96 resolutions proposing amendments covering thirty different subjects. The majority were introduced by the House of Representatives.

Since the ratification of the 27th amendment, there have been many proposals that were never approved. Some of these proposals could achieve ratification at some point in the future. But, for now, they don’t have the support because of their niche appeal or controversial nature.

Equal Opportunity to Govern

For example, the 21st century has seen both the proposed Equal Opportunity to Govern Amendment to allow naturalized citizens to run for President and the proposal to abolish birthright citizenship for children of foreign nationals.

How does the constitutional amendment process start?

There are two ways to get a proposal adopted by Congress. The first is to put the proposal to a vote in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Votes with a positive two-thirds majority can progress to the next stage. Right now, that means that 34 of the 50 states need to vote in favor. This does mean that 16 state representatives could vote against in the interest of the constituents and lose. But, there is still a larger number in favor of that democratic process. Once approved by Congress, the amendment and all related materials are sent to each state governor by the national archivist.

An Alternative to the Traditional Constitution Amendment Process

The alternative is for Congress to call a national convention on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the states. As things stand, this process is available but has never occurred, with Congress choosing to go for that two-thirds majority vote instead.

Ratification of the proposed amendments.

There is the amendment ratification process. Again, there are two options, and the choice on which path to take is up to Congress at that moment. The first is to call on legislatures of all states to agree to the wording of the amendment and return it to the National Archives. Again, there must be a majority in order to make any amendment official. This time, that majority is three-fourths, taking the required number of votes to 38. This is the route taken for all but the 21st amendment. Here, Congress called on the state ratifying conventions of the same three-fourths majority.

Is there is a time limit on the ratification process?

There is no strict or consistent time limit on ratification. The rules state that proposals must be ratified “within the stipulated time period if any”. This means that there doesn’t have to be a time limit unless Congress decides that a deadline is within their best interests. Some amendment proposals can take a very long time to get through the process. The 27th amendment on congressional pay is a bit of an anomaly, with a 202-year gap between the proposal and the ratification. Before that, the longest period had been that of the 22nd amendment on the presidential tenure, which took three years and four months.

Long Time Periods Between Adoption And Ratification

The long time periods between adoption and ratification occur because each state governor must deal with the material, choose to either vote for or against, and then return their vote. The National Archives at the Office of the Federal Register keeps an official count running as it receives official confirmation either way. It may be the case that legislatures don’t return the correct materials and documents to support their decision at first. Once the office has the required 38 legal positive votes in favor of the amendment, they can make an official announcement and published the amendment in the Federal Register and Statutes-at-Large.

Does the President have any part in the constitutional amendment process?

One thing that is interesting in all of this is that the focus and power lie with Congress. They receive the proposal, put forward the vote for adoption, and then decide on the ratification process. No joint resolution on the adopted amendment goes before the President. Even the final official admission into the Constitution is the work of the National Archives. Anything the President chooses to do at this point to acknowledge and show support of the movement is symbolic.

The constitutional amendment process is more complex than it first appears.

In short, while there are only two main steps in this process in adoption and ratification, there is a lot more to the system. The need for various votes and documentation from state legislatures and the involvement of different houses complicates matters. This is necessary to allow for the due democratic process and to ensure that unsuitable amendments don’t get through. These complications are also why the Constitution remains so close to its original form today.


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