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Congressional Amendments

Passing amendments through Congress is the primary method of amending the Constitution.

The Issue

Constitutional amendments proposed by Congress are introduced through a joint resolution. Both the House and the Senate must approve the resolution by a two-thirds vote. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) then receives a copy for processing. Staff at NARA’s Office of the Federal Register (OFR) process the resolution before distribution to the states. Legislative history notes are then added to the amendment during processing.

Amendments proposed by Congress do not take effect unless approved by the states. OFR delivers to each governor a letter describing the proposed constitutional amendment. Governors introduce the amendment to their respective legislature for consideration. Both houses of a state’s legislature must approve a joint resolution in order for the proposed amendment to be considered for ratification. Three-fourths of the legislatures must approve a proposed amendment in order to achieve full ratification. Although the U.S. Constitution does not expressly require that the states be given a deadline within which to approve proposed amendments, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled Congress has the authority to establish a deadline. Seven years is common; the deadline must be stated either in the body of the amendment or in the resolution proposing it.

OFR receives a copy of the amendment from each state after approval; it is OFR’s responsibility is to determine the sufficiency of the states’ approval of the amendment. An amendment becomes operative as soon as it reaches the three-fourths of the states threshold. Once certified by the Archivist of the United States, it officially becomes an article of the Constitution.

All 27 of the amendments to the U.S. Constitution have taken this path. The last amendment – the 27th, prohibiting any law that increases or decreases the salary of members of Congress from taking effect until the start of the next set of terms of office for Representatives – was ratified on May 18, 1992. It was originally submitted by Congress to the states for ratification on September 25, 1789. The ratification period thus took 202 years, 7 months, and 10 days.


Policy Takeaways

Numerous constitutional amendments are introduced each legislative session in Congress and across the nation, according to Library of Congress. The amendments cover different topics from campaign finance reform to term limits.

In a Policy Study for The Heartland Institute, Rob Natelson notes state legislatures can influence Congress to begin the amendment-proposing process:

State officials frequently testify before Congress. State legislatures frequently pass resolutions – often called “memorials” – recommending Congress adopt a course of action. Governors inform Congress of their views. ... [L]obbying Congress and federal officials is an inherent prerogative of state sovereignty and protected by the First Amendment.

Before the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified, U.S. senators were elected by their respective state legislatures. Legislatures were not shy about communicating their concerns to the senators they had chosen. Although senators now are popularly elected, both senators and members of the House of Representatives know state politicians can affect their prospects for reelection. Most members of Congress, therefore, listen respectfully to state officials expressing their concerns. State legislatures may formally “invite” their congressional delegations to appear before one of their sessions for an exchange of views.