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“The Congress, whenever t-thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two-thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which. in either Case, shall be valid to all to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three-fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three-fourths thereof, as the one or the Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Sufferage in the Senate.”
As seen above, the United States’ Constitution can be changed or amended, from its original wording. The writers of the Constitution knew they had not created a finished document. In fact, for the Constitution to get ratified, several important amendments needed to be passed right away, as some states vowed not to ratify the Constitution without these amendments. These first amendments – ten in all – are collectively called the Bill of Rights. The framers also knew that other inevitable changes would be necessary.
Knowing that the country would change over time, the framers wanted the Constitution to be able to change with the times and the needs of the country. For these changes, they wrote an amendment process into the Constitution. This amendment process is spelled out in Article V. Under the procedures specified in Article V, the Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times. The first ten were adopted together in 1791 and the other seventeen amendments were adopted over the years between 1795 and 1992.
There are basically two ways to amend the Constitution. One method is that an amendment can be proposed from either House or the Senate and then sent for approval by the state legislatures. The second method is for a state or group of states call for a constitutional convention and this proposal is approved by both houses of Congress. In either case, a proposal of an amendment must pass in both the House and Senate by a two-thirds majority and must then be ratified by three-quarters of the state legislatures (this would currently require ratification by 38 states).
Looking deeper, however, there are actually four ways to amend the US Constitution. Within the two methods of amending the Constitution by either the work of a legislative body or a convention, there are two other methods. Here are the four methods:
The first is the method used for all but one of the amendments. The fourth method was used for the 21st Amendment (which repealed the 18th Amendment, ending Prohibition). Methods two and three have never been used to pass a constitutional amendment. Another version of method three is that the states can call on Congress to convene a convention. Usually, a time limit is imposed in the writing of the amendment (typically 7 years) so that the process will not be dragged out indefinitely. If the time limit expires before the amendment is ratified by the required three-fourths majority, the amendment would fail to become law.
Either of the four methods to amend the Constitution are tedious and difficult to achieve. The requirement to work through both houses of Congress and the legislatures of the state governments is a significant obstacle to overcome because of the large number of legislators involved. A significant number of these legislators need to agree on the need for and wording of the proposed amendment. A two-thirds majority must be reached in both the House and Senate and at least three-quarters of the states must ratify it otherwise the proposed amendment will be defeated. There are numerous places in this adoption process where it can go awry, and for an amendment to succeed in being adopted, there must be a high degree of bipartisan cooperation.
Why did the framers make the process for changing the Constitution so difficult? One immediate reason was that the framers needed to lock in the political deals made to get the Constitution ratified. Several states made it known they would not vote in favor of the Constitution if certain rights were not guaranteed. Even as the merits of the basic Constitution was being debated in the state legislatures, the framers were working on the first twelve amendments to be adopted right away. As it turned out, two of those amendments were rejected, but ten were ratified (the Bill of Rights) soon after the Constitution was adopted. To make it possible for amendments to be adopted to the Constitution, Article V was created.
The more important reason to make the amendment process difficult was a more visionary idea. The framers believed that by making changes to the Constitution a lengthy and difficult process, it would help to maintain the stability of the nation’s laws. They did not want it to be possible for arbitrary changes to be made to the Constitution, yet if changes were needed, the difficulty in doing so would guarantee that the change was needed and well thought out.
Other safeguards to keep the stability of the nation’s ruling document is Article V stipulates that no amendment may make any changes to 1st and 4th clauses in the Ninth Section of Article I. No amendment can deprive a state of its full representation in the U.S. Senate. Additionally, the U.S. Presiden has no role in any part of the formal amendment process.
The writers of the U.S. Constitution carefully crafted a document that would ensure the strength and stability of the new country they were building. The Constitution has helped to maintain this stability of the United States’ government for well over 200 years.