The U.S. Constitution has withstood the test of time. Today, 225 years after it was drafted, it remains the most useful blueprint for self-government ever devised by a freedom-loving people.
The Founding Fathers knew the Constitution, which carefully and effectively divides essential powers among three equal branches of government – the executive, legislative and judicial – while guaranteeing the rights of individual citizens, might have to evolve to meet new national challenges. Obviously, the framers, looking through an 18th century lens, could not foresee what specific issues of national importance would emerge in the future. So, they established, in Article V of the Constitution, a mechanism for enacting amendments.
The process for approving amendments is complicated and time-consuming. Article V, in its wisdom, sets out a formula which, though fair and democratic, discourages frivolous tampering with this cherished document. In addition to the original ten amendments (the Bill of Rights which guarantees individual protections), the nation, over these past two centuries, has enacted only 17 additional amendments that are now part of the Constitution.
Article V sets out two separate paths for approval of constitutional amendments. Two-thirds of the states (or now, 34 states) can request a convention for consideration of amendments. Any new amendments arising from the convention would then have to be passed by the legislatures of three-fourths (38) of the states. This process has never been used.
The 14th through 27th amendments have all been enacted through the other two-step procedure identified in Article V. Both houses of Congress must approve an amendment, each by a two-thirds vote. The amendment is then referred to the individual states for consideration. Both houses of the legislature in a state must approve the amendment. Again, an amendment becomes part of the Constitution when three-quarters of the states have ratified it.
The U.S. Code (Title I, Chapter 2, Section 106b) provides that when the National Archives and Records Administration receives official notification that a constitutional amendment has been ratified by the requisite number of states, the Archivist of the United States publishes and certifies the amendment as part of the Constitution.
Among the amendments that were enacted after the Bill of Rights were: civil rights to all (14th, ratified in 1868), black suffrage (15th, 1870), right to enact an income tax (16th, 1930), popular election of U.S. senators (17th, 1913), prohibition of liquor (18th, 1919) and repeal of Prohibition (21st, 1933), women’s suffrage (19th, 1920), the two-term limit for presidents (22nd, 1951), presidential succession, and allowing 18-year-olds to vote (26th, 1971).
The last amendment to be ratified, the 27th in 1992, prevents a pay raise for House and Senate members from taking effect until after the next election for House members.
Just because an amendment gets the thumbs-up by Congress doesn’t mean it will be ratified by the states. The Equal Rights Amendment for women, passed by Congress in 1972, was only ratified by 35 of the required 38 states. So this famous and highly popular amendment, has never been enacted.