Amending Process

Author:Walter Dellinger

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Article V, which stipulates the methods by which the Constitution may be amended, reflects the Framers' attempt to reconcile the principles of the Revolution with their desire for stable government in the future. Early in the CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1787, GEORGE MASON, of Virginia suggested that inclusion in the Constitution of a specified mechanism for future amendments would help channel zeal for change into settled constitutional processes. "Amendments therefore will be necessary," he said, "and it will be better to provide for them, in an easy, regular and constitutional way than to trust to chance and violence." So viewed, the Article V amendment process is a somewhat conservative rendering of the revolutionary spirit that had claimed for the people an inalienable right to alter or abolish an inadequate government.

The Constitution sets out alternative methods both for proposing and for ratifying amendments. Amendments may be proposed by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress, or by a national constitutional convention. All of the amendments proposed thus far in our history have emanated from Congress. To become part of the Constitution, proposed amendments must gain the assent of three-fourths of the states. Article V gives Congress the power to choose whether proposed amendments (including any proposed by a constitutional convention) should be submitted to state legislatures or to state conventions for RATIFICATION. Congress has submitted every proposed amendment but one to the state legislatures.

Since 1789, over 5,000 bills proposing amendments to the Constitution have been introduced in Congress. Of these, only thirty-three received the necessary two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress and proceeded to the states for ratification. Twenty-six have been adopted; the remaining seven failed to be ratified. With only a few exceptions, the amendments proposed by Congress have come in clusters; virtually all of them arose during four brief periods.

The first of these periods ran from 1789 to 1804 and produced what may loosely be called the "Anti-Federalist amendments"?the BILL OF RIGHTS, the ELEVENTH AMENDMENT, and the TWELFTH AMENDMENT?each of which was, in part, a concession to Anti-Federalist or Jeffersonian interests. More than half a century passed before the Constitution was again amended. In 1865, sixty-one years after adoption of the Twelfth Amendment, Congress proposed and the states ratified the THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT, the first of the three RECONSTRUCTION amendments. The adoption of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT and the FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT followed in 1868 and 1870. A gap of almost another half-century intervened between the Reconstruction amendments and the next four amendments. These last grew out of the Populist and Progressive movements and provided for federal income taxation (the SIXTEENTH AMENDMENT, ratified in 1913), DIRECT ELECTION of senators (the SEVENTEENTH AMENDMENT, ratified in 1913), PROHIBITION (the EIGHTEENTH AMENDMENT, ratified in 1919), and WOMAN SUFFRAGE (the NINETEENTH AMENDMENT, ratified in 1920). A fifth Progressive amendment, the CHILD LABOR AMENDMENT, was proposed in 1924 but was not ratified.

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Together, the first three periods accounted for all but three of the amendments adopted before 1960. (The only amendments that did not fall into one of these clusters were the TWENTIETH AMENDMENT, which limits the lame-duck session of Congress and was adopted in 1933; the TWENTYFIRST AMENDMENT, which repealed prohibition and was adopted in 1933; and the TWENTY-SECOND AMENDMENT, which limits the President to two terms in office and was adopted in 1951). A fourth period of amendment activity lasted from 1961 to 1978. During these years, Congress proposed six amendments, four of which were adopted. The TWENTY-THIRD AMENDMENT gave the DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA three electoral votes in presidential elections. The TWENTY-FOURTH AMENDMENT abolished the POLL TAX for federal elections. The TWENTY-FIFTH AMENDMENT provided rules for presidential disability and...

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