The Constitution of the United States, as originally written, contained only 7,000 words. However, the authors recognized the necessity of amending the document. The Articles of Confederation, the governing document that preceded the Constitution, required the approval of all states, which complicated the amending of the Articles and ultimately led to the writing of the Constitution.
The Constitution provides for three processes of amendment. The most common procedure requires the amendment to be approved by two-thirds of Congress, meaning both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Then the amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures. At this point, it becomes part of the Constitution and the supreme law of the land. This course of action has resulted in twenty-six of the twenty-seven amendments. In the instance of the repeal of the Prohibition Amendment, the second process is used and the amendment was approved by two-thirds of Congress, but ratified by three-fourths of the states by convention of the people. The third option put forward in the Constitution requires the amendment to be approved by a convention of all states and then ratification either by state legislature or state conventions. This alternative has never been used; the last convention of the states resulted in the elimination of the Articles of Confederation and the writing of the current Constitution of the United States.
The Congress, whenever two 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 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 other 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 Suffrage in the Senate.
The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was approved during the first Congress. To appease the Anti-Federalists, James Madison proposed seventeen possible amendments. Twelve of these were approved by Congress, and ten were ratified by the states and became the Bill of Rights. One of the two denied ratification in the 1790’s became the Twenty-seventh Amendment (Congressional Pay) in 1992. The difficulty of passing amendments to the Constitution can be seen as only seventeen amendments have been added in the more than 200 years since the Bill of Rights was added. Since 1919, amendments are proposed with a specific time limit that further increases the difficulty of changing the Constitution. However, this complexity also reduces the possible number of amendments that would permanently alter the Constitution.
The Constitution can be informally changed by a variety of methods. Congress has used the “Elastic Clauses,” particularly the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause, to expand the power of legislation. The presidency has also expanded its power through executive agreements. And the Supreme Court, through the power of judicial review, can create a more flexible Constitution or declare legislative or executive action unconstitutional.
Although the process of amending the Constitution of the United States is infrequently accomplished, most of those passed have given Americans greater rights and ability to participate in government.
Barbara A. Bardes et al., American Government and Politics Today: The Essentials, 2004–5 ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning Inc., 2004); and Robert J. Spitzer et al., Essentials of American Politics (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002).