September 15, 2017

Proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution seldom go anywhere

U.S. politicians say they revere the Constitution, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have plenty of ideas for changing it. Since 1999, 742 proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution have been introduced in the House or Senate, including 59 so far in the current Congress, according to our analysis ahead of Constitution Day on Sunday.

The proposals cover dozens of topics, from lengthening House terms (from two years to four) to prohibiting any future attempt to replace the U.S. dollar with a hypothetical global currency. But not one has become part of the Constitution. In fact, the last time a proposed amendment gained the necessary two-thirds support in both the House and Senate was 1978, when a measure 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.

Indeed, the vast majority of proposed amendments die quiet, little-mourned deaths in committees and subcommittees. Only 20 times since 1999 have proposed amendments even been voted on by the full House or Senate, according to our analysis of legislative data from the Library of Congress. The most recent instance was three years ago this month, when a campaign-finance amendment failed in the Senate on a procedural vote.

One proposed amendment did come close to congressional adoption. During each term of Congress from 1999 to 2006, the House approved an amendment banning flag desecration, only to see it die in the Senate – though the last time, in 2006, the Senate version fell just one vote short of the two-thirds requirement.

The U.S. Constitution is famously difficult to amend – it takes a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate (or that share of state legislatures calling for a convention), then ratification by three-quarters of states. Of the nearly 12,000 amendments proposed since the Constitutional Convention, only 33 have gone to the states for ratification, and 27 have made it all the way into the Constitution. (In contrast, India adopted its constitution just 68 years ago and it’s already been amended 101 times.) By design, amending the Constitution requires a degree of political consensus that seems in short supply these days. And many, if not most, proposed amendments have a distinct partisan tinge to them, making it that much harder to achieve the necessary supermajorities in both chambers of Congress.

For instance, 133 separate balanced-budget amendments have been formally introduced since 1999. Of those, 113 have had Republicans as their lead sponsors. Also, of the 68 amendments seeking to limit congressional terms in one way or another, 65 were sponsored by Republicans. Conversely, 67 of the 71 proposals to authorize limits on campaign contributions and expenditures were sponsored by Democrats or a Democrat-aligned independent.

Such 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 Democratic New York Rep. Jose Serrano’s recurrent proposals to repeal the 22nd Amendment, which limits presidents to serving two terms. Proposals in the current Congress run the gamut from old and familiar (reintroduction of the Equal Rights Amendment, which fell three states short of ratification back in 1982) to new and, for now, unique (an amendment specifying that the president can’t pardon himself).

We also looked at the reasons that drove some of the most common amendment proposals. 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, as same-sex marriages have become more common and public opinion has become more supportive of them in the past few years, there have been fewer and fewer proposals to write a ban on such marriages into the Constitution. And the number of proposed balanced-budget amendments, which had dropped off somewhat after that idea’s heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s, resurged after the GOP regained control of the House in 2010.

Amendments often are proposed as ways to overturn or get around controversial court decisions. In the current Congress, for instance, two separate proposals from Republicans would require representatives to be apportioned based only on states’ citizen population, rather than total population – a clear response to the Supreme Court’s ruling last year upholding the “one person, one vote” standard. And from Democrats, in another reaction to Citizens United, come three proposals stating that constitutional rights apply only to “natural persons” and not to corporations.

Note: This is an update to a post originally published Sept. 17, 2014.

Topics: Congress

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.