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The amendment process for the US Constitution is the means by which the people can change the basic charter of their government. The process itself is described in Article V, and it seems very simple. In the time since the Constitution’s adoption, however, it has been amended only 27 times. When one considers that the first 10 amendments were enacted en masse as the Bill of Rights, this means that the Constitution has really been successfully amended only 17 times, although thousands of amendments have been proposed.
Article V of the Constitution sets forth the amendment process in 143 words, all in a single sentence. An amendment may be proposed by either house of the Congress. If it passes both houses by a two-thirds majority, it’s put to the states for ratification. The Congress can direct that the state legislatures vote on an amendment, or it may direct them to hold conventions of the people for the purposes of ratification. If three-fourths of the states ratify the amendment, it’s enacted and becomes an integral part of the Constitution.
An alternative process is also provided in Article V, which requires that the Congress call a convention to consider amendments upon the application by two-thirds of the states’ legislatures. Amendments produced by such a convention would then be put to the states for ratification, exactly as if they’d been produced by the Congress itself. Like those proposed by the Congress, if ratified by three-fourths of the states, they would become part of the Constitution.
When the Constitution was first proposed and debated, one of the universal concerns raised was that it concerned itself with the power and authority of the government and its branches, but did little to express or defend the rights of the people. At the time, the document was under consideration by each state for ratification, and it was decided that trying to change it during that process would muddy the waters. Instead, it was proposed to let it be ratified by the states as written, and allow modifications defining and defending the rights of the people to be amended thereto.
After Rhode Island became the 13th state to ratify the new Constitution, a set of 12 amendments was proposed by James Madison. One, which established a formula for apportionment of representation in the House, was never ratified. Another, which restricted Congress’ ability to grant itself a pay increase, was ratified in 1992, over 200 years after it was sent to the states for ratification. The other 10 amendments were ratified in December 1791, and became known collectively as the Bill of Rights.
The 11th and 12th amendments addressed contemporary issues regarding states’ sovereignty and the election of the vice president, following which no amendments were adopted until immediately after the Civil War. This is testament not necessarily to the perfection of the Constitution, but to the difficulty of amending it. Actually, this is what the framers intended — the basic law of the land, they reasoned, should not be subject to change by the transient whim of any one group that managed to gain popular support for its views. For this reason, any amendments must be presented to all state legislatures for consideration, and must be approved by three-fourths, or 38 states in all, for ratification.
One of the interesting things about the amendment process is that it involves only the legislatures of the national government and the states. Neither the president, nor any of the state governors, nor any of the judiciary have anything to do with the process. This is consistent with the wishes of the framers. Just as the Constitution itself was established by “we the people,” so any changes can be wrought only by the same people, without guidance or interference from the other branches of government.