Changing the US Constitution is easier said than done

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It is not easy to change the we Constitution. If that was the case, we could have a Roman-style triumvirate sitting in the White House instead of a single president. Or we could live in the United States of Earth. And slavery could still be in place. These are just three of the thousands of amendments proposed – and rejected – since the adoption of the Constitution.

There are two main ways Congress can pass a law. One or more legislators can propose a bill to the House or the Senate. He goes to a committee. If passed, it goes to the House or Senate for a vote. If both chambers approve it, the measure goes to the president. whose signature is required to make it a law.

The other legislative method is to amend the Constitution, which is easier said than done.

This was to be the framework, the basic law governing how the federal government should operate. And it wouldn’t be a basic law if every two weeks someone could change it. —Jonathan Weinberg, Wayne State University, explains why amending the Constitution is not easy

How it works

Wikimedia Commons

The drafters intentionally made it difficult to change the Constitution, said Jonathan Weinberg, professor at Wayne State University.

Section 5 sets out the process.

Congress, whenever two-thirds of the two Chambers deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, upon the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the different States, shall convene a Convention to propose amendments, which, in in either case, shall be valid for all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three-quarters of the various States, or by conventions in three-quarters of these, as either mode of ratification may be proposed by Congress; it being understood that no amendment which may be made before the year one thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any way affect the first and fourth clauses of the ninth section of the first article; and that no State, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.

It’s a PARCEL of words. But what do they mean? Here’s a simpler explanation from Professor Jonathan Weinberg of Wayne State University.

A proposal is presented to Congress. It must be adopted by two-thirds of both chambers, a two-thirds vote in the House and a two-thirds vote in the Senate ”, said Weinberg. “It is then passed on to the states, and if three-quarters of the state legislatures ratify it, it becomes a new part of the Constitution.”

So when there were 13 states, it took 10 to ratify. Today, it is 38 out of 50. But why such a high threshold, rather than a simple majority? Weinberg says the drafters intentionally made it difficult to change the Constitution.

It had to be the framework, the basic law governing how the federal government should operate, ”Weinberg said. “And it wouldn’t be a Basic Law if every two weeks someone could change it.”

Thousands of amendments have been proposed

Alice Paul was the original author of the Equal Rights Amendment Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Alice Paul was the original author of the Equal Rights Amendment.

It doesn’t mean people haven’t tried. There have been over 11,000 attempts to amend the Constitution, but only 27 have been adopted. The most recent amendment prohibits members of Congress from adjusting their salaries until after an election. It was introduced in 1789 but was not ratified until 1992.

Most of the amendments were ratified in a matter of months or years. The Equal Rights Amendment, first proposed in 1923, guarantees everyone the same rights, regardless of gender. Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the TIME in 2020. So why didn’t it become the 28th Amendment? Weinberg says it’s complicated.

The problem with the equal rights amendment is that when Congress sent the amendment to the states, it specified a deadline, ”he says. “He said it has to be ratified in so many years.”

Seven years, to be exact. Congress sent the TIME to states in March 1972. By 1979, only 35 states had ratified it – and five of them withdrew their support. Lawsuits ensued to move or abolish the time limit.

Altana West works for the Alice Paul Institute, named after the original author of the amendment. The west says TIME donors do not ever abandon ratification.

The House has passed two bills now, overturning the schedule, ”West said. “And there is a hope vote in the Senate.”

The amendment is unlikely to gain the required two-thirds support in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. Even a decisive vote from the first female vice president wouldn’t be enough to send her to the United States.

Politics spurs amendment efforts

Proposals like the TIME generally reflect the political climate of the time in which they are presented. Take the example of a balanced budget amendment. The idea gained traction among Reagan Republicans in the 1980s and nearly won votes to come out of Congress in the mid-1990s when the GOP took control of both houses. Even with the support of some Democrats, the amendment lacked two votes in the Senate before being sent to the states for ratification. Economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington says it’s just as good that it failed. He says the federal government needs flexibility in spending in times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Think back to when the economy stopped and imagine the government was unable to send these [stimulus] checks to us … Imagine the federal government could not do this because its hands were tied by a balanced budget amendment. —Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research

Think back to when the economy stopped and imagine the government was unable to send these [stimulus] checks to us and couldn’t get additional UI, ”says Baker. “Imagine the federal government couldn’t do this because its hands were tied by a balanced budget amendment. “

At least eight balanced budget bills were introduced in the House or Senate in 2021. And although the federal government is not required to balance its budget, 49 states, including Michigan, are.

States can initiate changes

This brings us back to a key point in Article 5: States themselves can ask Congress to convene a convention to propose amendments.

It would take 34 states for that to happen. So how would an Article 5 Convention work? Weinberg says no one knows, because there never was.

If Congress calls the convention, does it have to be a convention where the whole Constitution has to be amended or everything is a fair game? Weinberg asks. “Or can Congress convene the convention only to consider an amendment on a particular issue?” “

On the balanced budget amendment issue, several Republican-led state legislatures and well-funded conservative groups are already trying to align 34 states to call for an Article 5 convention to incorporate it into the Constitution. Researchers fear that such an event could turn into a general melee where the end result is an entirely new constitution. It would take 38 more states to ratify new amendments or repeal existing amendments.

Until then, Congress will continue to pass laws in the usual way – by passing bills and sending them to the president.


Listen: Why the Founding Fathers made it difficult to change the Constitution.


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