September 17, 2014

On Constitution Day, a look at proposed amendments and how seldom they go anywhere

US ConstitutionU.S. politicans say they revere the Constitution, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have plenty of ideas for changing it. Since 2003, in fact, 465 proposed constitutional amendments have been introduced in the House or Senate, according to our count — including 82 in the current Congress alone.

Although they cover dozens of different topics, the proposed amendments in this period all have one thing in common: None of them have gone into effect. In fact, no amendment proposal has gained the necessary two-thirds support in both the House and Senate since 1978, when an amendment giving District of Columbia residents voting representation in Congress was sent to the states for ratification. (Only 16 states had ratified it when the seven-year time limit expired.)

constitutional amendments that fail to passIndeed, the vast majority of proposed amendments die quiet, unmourned deaths in committees and subcommittees. By our count, only 12 times in the past dozen years have proposed amendments even been voted on by the full House or Senate. The most recent was earlier this month, when a campaign-finance amendment failed in the Senate on a procedural vote.

One proposed amendment came close. In 2003, the House passed a flag-desecration amendment 300-125, but the Senate never took it up. The House passed another flag-desecration amendment in 2005, 286-130, but a companion measure in the Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds requirement.

Those long odds don’t stop members of Congress from proposing dozens of new amendments every session. Some members, in fact, offer the same amendment repeatedly (such as New York Rep. Jose Serrano’s recurrent proposals to repeal the 22nd Amendment, which limits presidents to two terms). Proposals in the current Congress run the gamut from classic (reintroduction of the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed in 1982) to idiosyncratic (allowing two-thirds of state legislatures to repeal federal laws).

Some ideas come up year after year after year. We looked at five of the most common subjects of amendment proposals to examine some trends. The number of proposed amendments related to campaign finance jumped after the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case that federal law can’t ban corporate election spending. Conversely, the number of proposals seeking to bar same-sex marriage has dwindled even as such marriages have become more common and public opinion has become more supportive in the past few years.

Amendments often are proposed as ways to overturn or get around controversial court decisions. In the current Congress, for instance, three separate proposals from the right seek to limit Congress’ power to impose a tax on “a failure to purchase goods or services” or “to compel someone to engage in commercial activity,” a clear response to the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act’s individual health-insurance mandate. And on the left, in another reaction to Citizens United, two proposals state that constitutional rights apply only to “natural persons” and not to corporations.

Topics: Congress

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.

3 Comments

  1. Jeff12 months ago

    the 27th Amendment in 1992??????

  2. Professor Bob B. Nottowaiewatieto1 year ago

    Ummmmm. The twenty seventh amendment was published in 1992.

  3. Thomas R2 years ago

    The Twenty-Seventh Amendment was in 1992. Although I guess it doesn’t fit as it was first submitted in 1789.