Information icon.svg At All things in moderation, we are currently voting on restrictions on the use of LLMs (chatbots) in RationalWiki. Reminder: you need to have at least 75 edits and to have been registered for at least three months to be eligible to vote.

United States Constitution

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787.
We the People do ordain and establish this
US Constitution
Constnav icon.png
Standards of review
Other legal theories
I - II - III - IV - V - XIV
Defining moments in law


The United States Constitution is the second founding law of the United States of America, adopted after the Articles of Confederation didn't work out well.

The Constitution is a comprehensive document that establishes a form of government with three co-equal branches and which also preserves the liberty of the citizenry. An explicitly counter-majoritarian document in many parts – especially the Bill of Rights – the Constitution is designed to prevent majorities from prohibiting or oppressing minority religions or from prohibiting the expression of minority views. Mere majorities cannot repeal any part of the Constitution, including, e.g., the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by the state, the right of an accused to a jury trial of his peers, or the right to equal protection of the law.[note 1]

Despite some beliefs to the contrary, the Constitution does not say that the U.S. is a Christian country, nor does it call on God in any way. The authors of the Constitution were also smart enough to realize that it might not work for all time, and so provided a means to amend it. And indeed, rather briefly after adopting the Constitution, the founding generation ratified ten amendments.

The Constitution is largely written in general provisions. Specific constitutional cases are brought before the courts and the meaning of particular sections of the document are determined by the judiciary, frequently appealed up to the Supreme Court, the highest court of the land.

The United States Constitution is freely available from many sources. If you wish to read the entirety of its text, go here.


The U.S. Constitution has seven articles and twenty-seven amendments.


Articles: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7

Amendments: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12 - 13 - 14 - 15 - 16 - 17 - 18 - 19 - 20 - 21 - 22 - 23 - 24 - 25 - 26 - 27


We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

This is the part that begins, "We the People…" At the time it was drafted, "people" were wealthy, WASP male landowners[1]. Today it includes all wealthy people and Christians, irrespective of their race or gender. Progress!

Oddly, the preamble includes the phrase "promote the general Welfare"[2], which means that the founding fathers were filthy pinko commies.

The Preamble has no legal effect; It does not give any granting power to the federal government or conferring rights to any persons.

Articles of the U.S. Constitution[edit]

Article 1[edit]

Creates the legislative branch of the federal government, a bicameral Congress with a Senate and a House of Representatives. House seats are proportional to population, but Senate seats are not. Since each state gets two Senate seats, we have some ridiculous extremes: for example, a half-million people in Wyoming have the same Senate representation as 38 million people in California.

Notable powers: Pass laws, levy taxes, print money, declare war, prosecute and try impeachments.

Notable limitations: Bans ex post facto laws (laws applied retroactively), provides for the "privilege" of writ of habeas corpus, which may only be suspended during rebellion or invasion (you must be charged with a crime in order to be jailed).

Section 1[edit]

All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.

The first three Articles of the Constitution deal with the three branches of government; the legislative, executive, and judicial branches respectively. Here, the Constitution grants the legislative power to Congress of the United States which we have just discovered to made up of two bodies: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Note here of the practise of separation of powers where each branch gets a different job and how each branch of government does checks and balances with each other to maintain responsible government. This was done on purpose to stop too much power being given to one person or entity.

Section 2[edit]

This next section will be on the House of Representatives.

The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.

The First Clause of Section 2 deals with the composition of the United States House of Representatives. The Supreme Court has generally agreed that each seat within the HoR should represent an equal population of Electors (or voters as we now known them by) as possible. [note 2] This is not possible in practise because seats cannot cross state lines, however the seats within a state's borders should equal in population. Despite the national-wide average person to seat ratio being 760k, this can skewer widely; Delaware's one seat has 990k people in it (making Delaware the most underrepresented state in the union), Montana's two seats have only 543k people in them each (making Montana the most overrepresented state in the union) and Rhode Island two seats only having 549k each making it second most overrepresented. [3]. Note that this doesn't stop gerrymandering since its doesn't violate any of the rules just mentioned.

The only requirement to be able to vote in the US HoR is that you can vote in your state legislature election [note 3] Usually the US HoR elections laws are determined by the federal government, unless stated otherwise.

No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.

So to be eligible to be an Representative you must have these three requirements:

  • Be at least 25 years old
  • Must have been a citizen of the USA for at lease seven years
  • You must live in the state where the district you want to represent it is in.

These are the only requirements to be admitted to Congress and neither the House nor the states can give extra requirements. [4] However the Courts have allowed states to disqualify third-party candidates from the ballot if they do not meet certain requirements like enough voter support. That makes only serious chances to win will be on the ballot. [5]

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to chuse three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New-York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three.

The House of Representatives seats are apportioned among the states along population size relative to the total national population: A state that makes up x% of the total United States population should get as close to x% of total House seats as possible, making sure that each state gets at least 1 seat (Today, several states have only one seat in the House of Representatives) in a process known as apportionment. Note that it was expected that each representative was only suppose to represent a maximum of 30,000 people and thus, the HoR grew in membership as populations grew and new states were added. However, the HoR size was capped at 435 back in 1929 and the HoR has not grown since in size. Today, if the 30,000 person per representative rule was continued, the HoR would have over 11,000 members!

Federal taxation also follow the population principle: A state that makes up x% of the total United States population should pay x% of the federal revenue. This however, made many different types of taxation impossible (for example income taxes) because it would be impossible to apportioned it among the several states. Eventually this caused the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment (see below) and so federal taxes no longer follow this principle.

But how can you figure out the population of each of the states? For the First Congress the Constitution explicitly wrote what each state was entitled to. However it was expected that within three years after the first meeting of the 1st Congress, the United States would have to conduct a census. This was done in 1790 and a census is constitutionally mandated every ten years hence as the law directs.

When the Constitution was being created, the free states and the slaves states had a disagreement on how slavery would be counted in the census and the subsequent apportionment of seats among the states. The free states argued that since the slaves had no vote, they shouldn't be counted in creating districts. The slaves states disagreed and threatened to refuse to ratify the Constitution if the slaves were not counted in. Eventually it was decided that when it came to apportioning the seats of the House among the states, the total population of the state should be:

  • Total amount of free Persons (including those that were banned from voting like women)
  • Plus the total amount of people who were in indentured servitude ("bound to Service for a Term of Years")
  • Minus the total amount of Native Americans who were not paying taxes
  • Plus Three Fifths of the total amount of "all other Persons" a euphemism for enslaved people. This rule did not affect free black people however.

This became known as the Three-fifths Compromise.

Thankfully the Three-fifths Compromise was undone by the Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment which specifically writes "Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed"

When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies.

So what would happen if a representative suddenly leaves his seat outside of an election? This usually happens when either the representative dies or decides to retire. In response, the "Executive Authority" of the state[note 4] where the representative and the representative's district is from will issue a "Writs of Election". [note 5] The state usually has flexibility on when and how the election is run unless stated otherwise by federal law. Note that House Vacancies and Senate Vacancies are treated differently.

The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.

The House gets the choose who the Speaker of the House and other House Officers. It has been argued that these people do not necessarily have to be House members themselves, though all previous House Speakers have been current representatives. This is the only mention of the House Speaker and other important House Officers in the Constitution. The role that the House Speaker plays in politics comes down to convention and has changed throughout American history.

What would happen if a particular political official (President, federal judge, etc) brought dishonour to their office? There is a mechanism in place known as "impeachment" where that official will have a trial to see if that person deserved to be removed from office. The House has the power to impeach an official via simple majority. However the House does not have the power to remove impeached officials; that's the job of the Senate.

Section 3[edit]

This section deals with the Senate.

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.

There was a huge problem when the Constitution was being created: The difference between the more popular states and the less popular states. The more popular states wanted a Congress whose sizes were proportional to population. However this was considered unacceptable by the less populated states as this will make them virtually powerless. Instead they wanted a Congress that gave equal votes in Congress regardless in size like in the old Articles of Confederation. This however was considered unfair by the larger states as this effectively made voting not equal across state lines.[note 6] Eventually a Great Compromise was decided: Both plans will be adopted with the lower house being proportional to population (the House of Representatives) and a upper house that ensures equality between the states (the Senate). Each chamber will have different responsibilities but both chambers must agree before legislation can pass.

It was also decided that the Senators will be elected via their state legislatures rather than by popular vote as in the HoR. This made sure that state legislators have a big say on how the United States was run and thus, helped to calm the fears that the federal government might have too much power over the states. However as the decades have progressed and partisan politics became more potent, it was decided that Senators shall be elected via popular election instead in 1913 through the Seventeenth Amendment.

Also note that the length of a Senator term is six years while a House member term is only two years! Hopefully this make Senators more stable and make better judgements since they only have to face elections every six years instead of the constant elections that House members face every second year.

Immediately after they shall be assembled in Consequence of the first Election, they shall be divided as equally as may be into three Classes. The Seats of the Senators of the first Class shall be vacated at the Expiration of the second Year, of the second Class at the Expiration of the fourth Year, and of the third Class at the Expiration of the sixth Year, so that one third may be chosen every second Year; and if Vacancies happen by Resignation, or otherwise, during the Recess of the Legislature of any State, the Executive thereof may make temporary Appointments until the next Meeting of the Legislature, which shall then fill such Vacancies.

Instead of making the entire Senate be elected once every six years, it was decided that only one third of the Senate be up for election every two years (usually at the same time as the House elections). This made sure that the Senate retains some of its stability while also allowing the Senate to somewhat change to new demands from the electorate. Note that the two senators from the same state will always be in two different classes.

Currently, Class 1 and Class 2 have 33 senators while Class 3 has 34 senators. Class 1 contains 75.2% of the population, Class 2 make up 51.8% of the population and Class 3 has 72.6% of the population. So during a Class 1 and 3 election, 3 out of 4 Americans will get to vote in a Senate election while only 1 in 2 Americans will do so in a Class 2 year. Why such a huge difference? Completely down to luck. The composition of the different classes were drawn by lot since the very founding of the Senate.

So what will happen if there is a vacancy in the Senate? The state legislators will elected a new Senator to fill out the rest of the term. If the state legislature are in recess, the Executive will make a temporary appointment in till the legislature meets again. This bit has been succeeded by the Seventeenth Amendment which makes a senate vacancy be filled up by popular vote (read below).

No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.

So to become a Senator of the United States you must:

  • You must be thirty years of age
  • You must have been a citizen of the United States for nine years.
  • You must be living in the state in which you were elected from

These are the only qualifications to get into the Senate and neither the Congress nor the States can add more qualifications.[6] You might notice that these qualifications are more stringent than the House. This was on purpose because the writers of the United States Constitution wanted the Senate to a more prestigious body than the House. Note however that you don't have to be elected to the Senate if you are not over thirty years or age or have been a United States citizen for at least nine years. You just have to wait in till you achieved these milestones before you get sworn in. [7] However these rules were not always followed! [8]

The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.

So who will take the job of presiding over the Senate? In the HoR this person is known as the Speaker and their selection is left up for the HoR to decide. However, here the Constitution has already decided who will be the President of the Senate, it will be no other than the Vice President! Why was the Vice President chosen to be the President of the Senate?

  • If one of the Senator were picked as the President of the Senate, this would mean that state where the Senator is from would have only half their representation in the Senate, since remember that the President of the Senate shall have no vote unless the vote is equally divided. However if was decided that the President of the Senate does get a vote and the vote is equally divided, shall the President of the Senate get another vote? That wouldn't be fair would it?
  • What else would the Vice President do? Since the Vice President was literally only created to take over the job of President if there is a vacancy. Other than that they have no other job to do.

The President of the Senate does not vote during normal Senate sessions. However, if the vote is equally divided, the President of the Senate get the final say.

The use of the Vice President as the President of the Senate has been controversial since it could muddle the separation of powers as the Vice President is from the executive branch and the Senate is from the legislative branch.

The Senate shall chuse their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States.

Like the House, the Senate shall get to chose their Officers. This includes the President pro tempore who isn't even required to be a Senator though every President pro tempore has been a Senator so far. The President pro tempore job is to take on the job of President of the Senate when the Vice President is not currently available.[note 7] Since the 1950s, the President pro tempore has been the most senior member of the majority party. The president pro tempore cannot do tie-break votes.[9]

The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.

After the House has impeached somebody, it is up for the Senate to place that impeached official on trial. Impeachments trials are similar to normal trials in courtrooms all across America: Usually there are lawyers who help defend the impeached official and Senators are allowed to bring witnesses and any evidence that is related to the trial to the Senate floor.

However a major difference is that impeachment trials are outside the scope of the judicial branch as impeachment is used to keep the judicial branch in check. Impeachment trials specifics are defined by Senate practises and what has been done historically.

Senators act as the jury during impeachment trials with every single Senator must do an Oath or Affirmation before the impeachment proceedings confirming that they will do their job properly and commit to impartial justice. The presiding officer of impeachment trials ("the judge") is not defined in the Constitution so usually its either the Senate President or the president pro tempore. The only exception is when the President of the United States is on trial in which the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court must be the presiding officer since having the Vice President as the usual presiding officer would be a conflict of interest.

For a person to be removed from office requires a two thirds majority, however to ban a person from ever returning to any high office again requires only a simply majority.

Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.

Impeachment trials are neither criminal nor civil trials. There is no legal punishment for being convicted in a impeachment trial except the immediate removal of office and sometimes also the disqualification to hold or enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit in the United States. However, the removed official can still receive either criminal or civil liabilities stemming from the cause of impeachment and sometimes officials have been convicted of crimes before they have been removed from office!

Section 4[edit]

This section deals with timing of elections and sessions of Congress.

The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

State legislatures can create their own laws surrounding the times, places and manner of elections to both chambers of Congress. However the Congress can also create their own election laws and thus override states laws. Somewhat bizarrely, Congress cannot regulate where the elections of Senators take place. This was when only state legislatures elected Senator and thus it wasn't necessary for Congress to ever need to regulate the place where Senators were elected. Of course, Senators are now directly elected [note 8] so this doesn't really mattered anymore.

They were fears that by giving Congress the ability to control elections, they would have tyrannical control over elections and thus make sure that only Congress's favourites would win election. So they made sure that congressional elections were primarily under the control of the states. Ironically, this made it far easier for states to then undermine the election process and disenfranchise minorities like Black people.[10]

This clause has also been used to justify a whole load of pseudolegal bullshit. There is a famous crank theory known as the "Independent state legislature theory" which claims that only the state legislature can regulate federal election with no checks and balances. People feared that if the ISL theory is upheld in court it would destroy democracy because without oversight how can America's election be kept safe? Considering that Republicans basically have given up pretending that they are pro democracy any more, this pretty much could have very bad consequences.

Back in 2015, the Supreme Court heard the case where the Arizona Legislature claimed that it can overrule a independent commission (Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission) because the Election Clause states that they had the final say in creating congressional districts. The AIRC was set up by ballot initiative to combat congressional gerrymandering. However the Supreme Court eventually ruled that the AIRC did in fact had the authority to overrule the Arizona Legislature. The Supreme Court ruled that the language "the Legislature therefore" meant "the power that makes laws" which included ballot initiatives! The Court founded that Legislatures is any sort of law making and that ballot initiatives (as long as it is consistent with the state Constitution) counts as a legislative activity. This was considered a huge drawback for the independent state legislature theory. [11]

Eventually, the independent state legislature theory got their day in the Supreme Court via the Moore v Harper ruling. [12] This case pretty much asked if the ISL theory was valid or not. The answer? No in a 6-3 ruling. They found that the state legislatures were not insulated from ordinary judicial power however this had limitations. The courts cannot directly regulate federal elections as that is still left to the state legislatures. This pretty much ended independent state legislature theory.

The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.

Congress only needs to meet at least once a year and that meeting will take place in the first Monday in December unless law will appoint another day. That meant that it was possible for a FULL year to go pass before Congress would assemble. Back in 1789, the United States was a massive country in a civilisation where instant communication didn't exist yet. So they had to be time between elections and the seating of Congress. The very first Congress wasn't seated in till March 4th in 1789! That tradition was maintained between 1789 to 1933. Elections as well did not take place on the same day either and changed from state to state. So between the elections in November and the seating in March there was 4 months where there was a lame duck Congress.

As technology improved and communication between far parts of the country became easier, it was no longer necessary for such a huge wait and eventually the Twentieth Amendment, Section 2 replaced this section.

Section 5[edit]

This section is on the proceedings of Congress.

Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, and a Majority of each shall constitute a Quorum to do Business; but a smaller Number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members, in such Manner, and under such Penalties as each House may provide.

Both Houses have the ability to make sure that their elections are in good and proper order. This includes investigations into fraud in a particular election race as well as making sure that elected officials have the qualifications (as set out in this Constitution) to be sworn in. What makes this clause significant is that Congress election investigations are outside the preview of the courts so claims of election fraud are a particularly partisan issue![note 9] Election investigations are somewhat similar to impeachment proceedings and other judicial proceedings in that Congress (of either House) can compel witnesses to give evidence and punish those who commit perjury.

Both Houses of Congress must have a majority of its members present to do any sort of normal business. It can even compel lazy members to be in the chamber or receive punishment. How to determine a quorum is up to the each Houses of Congress to decide.

Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.

Each Houses of Congress can create its own rules and proceedings. This allows flexibility to change rules overtime without it being strictly bound by the Constitution. Example of Senate rules include the Senate filibuster[note 10] as well as Senate dress codes.[note 11] There isn't really a constraint to any rules both Houses of Congress could adopt unless these rules ‘ignore constitutional restraints or violate fundamental rights.'[13] Both chambers also have the option to censure or reprimand a member for bad behaviour with just a simple majority.

Each Houses of Congress also have the ability to both punish its member for bad behaviour as well as expel a member with a vote of two thirds. Originally used in the English House of Commons, it was decided that a two thirds majority was needed to expel a member so not to use the expulsion mechanism for simple political reasons but require broad political support.

Only five representatives and fifteen senators has ever been expelled from Congress. The very first was Senator William Blount of Tennessee for Treason and conspiracy to incite the Creek and Cherokee Indians to assist Great Britain in invading Spanish Florida. In 1861 and 1862 over 14 Senators were expelled for support for the Confederate rebellion. This was the last time in which Senators have been expelled. In 1860, three representatives were also expelled for supporting the rebellion as well. It wouldn't be in till over 120 years later that the House would expel another Member. The last two members to be expelled were Michael J. Myers (Democrat from Pennsylvania)[note 12] in 1980 and James Traficant (Democrat from Ohio) in 2002, who were both convicted of bribery. Usually members would resign their office before being expelled.

Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy; and the Yeas and Nays of the Members of either House on any question shall, at the desire of one fifth of those present, be entered on the Journal.

If you want to keep up to date with the latest news coming from Capitol Hill you only need to go to one place: The United States House Journal and United States Senate Journal! Except for parts that must be kept secret, these two journals usually record the proceedings of Congress. If one fifth of those present of the chamber desires, it will also record the yeas and nays of any vote as well.

These two journals only record the bare minimum of legislation actions. If you want a full report on what's been happening (like speeches) you should check out the Congressional Record instead. If you want to see what other parts of the federal government has been up to (like public notices) you should check out the Federal Register.

Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting.

If one house of Congress want to adjourn for more than three days or do official proceedings in another place other than the Capitol building it must do so with the consent of the other house. If both houses of Congress cannot agree the time to adjourn then Article II, Section 3 gives the President the power to do so instead. Giving the two houses of Congress the power to adjourn itself rather than the President was specifically to stop the President from using adjournment as a bullying tactic.

The big problem with adjournment is that when Congress is in recess, it cannot do many of the powers it is given (like advice and consent to presidential appointments.) This effectively give the President special powers to give out recess appointments (which are temporary appointments made by the President in till Congress reconvene again) under Article II, Section 2. However Congress are not a big fan of these special Presidential powers so they effectively made sure that Congress will never be adjourned! How? The Constitution states that Congress can only be adjourned for three days without the other house approval, so at least on the fourth day something must be done to fulfil the constitutional requirement. So the pro forma session was born and it only last less than a minute. It only requires a single member since if no-one asks for a headcount, it is assumed that a quorum is present.

Section 6[edit]

This section will expand on the rights and privileges that Congress and its members enjoy.

The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States. They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.

Every single member of Congress shall receive a salary for their service in running the country. This salary will be determined by law and will be paid out by the Treasury of the United States. [note 13] Since the mid 20th century, the salary of Congress is determined by a commission and is usually only increased to stay pace with inflation. The salary of Congress has flatlined since 2010. Thus the salary of Congress are as follow:

  • The salary of most Senators, Representatives, non-voting delegates and the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico is $174,000.
  • The salary of the President pro tempore and the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate is $193,400.
  • The speaker of the House of Representatives are paid a salary of $223,500. [14]

Members of Congress are also free from being arrested when they are in session inside the chambers or in the time they are going into or leaving the chamber. The only exception are "Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace" which the Supreme Court have broadly defined as all criminal offenses. [15] However this means that this privilege from being arrested in the way described above only applies to civil suits. [note 14] Since people are not really arrested due to civil suits these days, this part of the Constitution doesn't really matter anymore.

Possibly the most important privilege that members of Congress have is parliamentary privilege and it can trace its roots back to England during the 1688 Glorious Revolution. Parliamentarians in the British Houses of Commons and members of the United State Congress are immune from civil or criminal liability during the course of their legislative work.

During the English civil war and afterwards, the King would use his power to intimidate Members of Parliament who had made statements that placed the Crown in a bad light during parliamentary debates. Eventually, this abuse was what eventually created the parliamentary privilege power that Britain and many other countries around the world enjoy today.

This concept of parliamentary privilege was eventually brought over into the United States Constitution via the Speech or Debate Clause. In the United States, there has been several court cases surrounding this clause since the Supreme Court has never interpreted this clause literally. The rule of thumb is that the Court has used is that this clause will be used to prevent neither the President or the judicial courts from abusing the legislative branch. However once it is determined that the Clause applies to a specific action, whatever action that particular member or their aides did is completely immune from either civil or criminal liabilities. [16] As the Courts have said succinctly "The business of Congress is to legislate; Congressmen and aides are absolutely immune when they are legislating". [17]

Article 2[edit]

Creates the executive branch. Establishes the office of the President of the United States and the qualifications for holding that office. It also creates land's favorite institution: the Electoral College.

Notable powers: Commander in Chief of the military, can veto laws passed by Congress, make treaties with other nations (under approval by the Senate), and appoint federal judges (who have to be approved by the Senate).

Article 3[edit]

Creates Judicial Branch. Establishes the Supreme Court, defines when it has appellate or original jurisdiction and leaves the creation of lower courts to Congress.

Notable powers: Interpret the Constitution (implied but not explicitly stated, but established in Marbury v. Madison). Justices serve for life.

Article 4[edit]

Relationships between states. Establishes that states should give "full faith and credit" to each others' laws.

Article 5[edit]

Establishes procedures for amending the constitution.

Article 6[edit]

The U.S. under the constitution inherits the debts it had under the Articles of Confederation. Also, the constitution and all Federal laws and treaties are the supreme law of the land, and no one in the government can be required to take a religious test to hold office (conveniently ignored by the "America is a Christian Country" crowd, and anyone who insists that the officeholder must include "so help me God" in their oath).

Article 7[edit]

Describes how this constitution was to be ratified. (Spoiler alert: It got ratified.[18])


The Bill of Rights[edit]

The first ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights. Today most constitutions in the world have similar guarantees of rights[19]; however, the Bill of rights is unusual in that it often combines similar and sometimes dissimilar rights into one article that get (several) separate articles in other constitutions.

1st Amendment[edit]

See the main article on this topic: First Amendment

Overview: Freedom of the press, religion, rights of assembly, a petition (right to sue), and speech.

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

2nd Amendment[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Second Amendment

Overview: Right to bear arms and maintain a well-regulated militia.[20]

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

3rd Amendment[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Third Amendment

Overview: Soldiers can't stay in someone's home without their permission.[21]

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

4th Amendment[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Fourth Amendment

Overview: The police need warrants to search your house or arrest you (more or less invalidated by the PATRIOT Act).[22]

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

5th Amendment[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Fifth Amendment

Overview: The government can't make people incriminate themselves. It can't take life, liberty, or property without due process of law. It can't try someone over and over again hoping for a different result. Private property can't be taken by the government without paying for it.

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

6th Amendment[edit]

Overview: Rights to a speedy trial, public trial, counsel (lawyer), and to know what exactly it is you're accused of.

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

7th Amendment[edit]

Overview: If you are sued by someone for more than $20 (which was a lot in 1791) then you have the right to a trial by jury. One of the arguments against the original text of the constitution being infallible; the Founding Fathers intended for this limit to be increased as the value of the dollar decreased. Meanwhile, just about everybody presently ignores this clause, since it would be a waste of time and resources to organize a trial by jury for every shmuck who sues someone for a Jackson note. The other clause states that, if any fact is deemed true by the entire jury in a civil court, then the Judge can't go back to reexamine it without any good reason.

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

8th Amendment[edit]

Overview: No excessive bail, no cruel or unusual punishment.

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

9th Amendment[edit]

Overview: The rights provided by the Constitution are inclusive, not exclusive; people are allowed to have other rights besides these.[23]

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

10th Amendment[edit]

Overview: If the power wasn't given to the federal government, then either the states have that power, or the people do.

Added: Dec. 15, 1791


11th Amendment[edit]

Overview: You can't sue a state you don't live in via the federal courts. This was passed as a result of the SCOTUS case Chisholm v. Georgia. It's kinda interesting.

Added: Feb. 7, 1795

12th Amendment[edit]

Overview: Boring crap about the Electoral College that shows why adhering to a strict, unchanging interpretation of the Constitution is bound to fail - the founders themselves decided it needed changes almost right away. Also responsible for all the "CLINTON/Kaine" and "TRUMP/Pence" bumper stickers you see; before this amendment, the candidate with the 2nd highest number of votes for President became Vice President, and there were no "running mates."[24]

Added: Jun. 15, 1804

The Reconstruction Amendments[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Reconstruction

The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments are called the Reconstruction Amendments because they dealt with the aftermath of the American Civil War. Generally speaking, they reaffirmed the rights of U.S. citizens (but stopped short of giving women the right to vote) and tackled some overarching questions that had been debated over the years since the Constitution's adoption. Unfortunately, Southern states often figured out ways of legally evading the amendments to continue denying blacks their rights.

13th Amendment[edit]

Overview: Abolishes slavery and all other forms of involuntary servitude. Unfortunately, it left a loophole that is still frequently abused: Involuntary servitude was still allowed "as punishment for a crime" - even if the said crime was "looking at the officer funny". (Against popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation merely freed most of the slaves in the South, but not really because the Union didn't control most of the South, but it left slaves in Union states still in servitude.)

Added: Dec. 6, 1865

14th Amendment[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Fourteenth Amendment

Overview: Defines U.S. Citizenship and says states can't trample on your rights. (Of course, the states then went on to trample on people's rights with Jim Crow laws.) This amendment is heavily used to defend and define newly recognized rights. For that reason, it is one of the most frequently applied in SCOTUS cases and one of the focal points of the "originalist" versus "living constitution" argument. Gay marriage, for instance, was legalized based on interpretation of this Amendment.

Added: Jul. 9, 1868

15th Amendment[edit]

Overview: ANTI-anti-voting amendment and laws ostensibly gave blacks the right to vote. (But not women, who, except for Ann Coulter and Phyllis Schlafly, were livid over the exclusion.)

Added: Feb. 3, 1870

20th- and 21st-century amendments[edit]

16th Amendment[edit]

Overview: Eliminated Created the messes involved in by passing a Federal income tax. (Infamous for being the cause of the IRS.)

Added: Feb. 3, 1913

17th Amendment[edit]

Overview: Shifted the election of Senators from state legislatures to direct elections. Much hated by federalists and general anti-government people for "taking the states out of the federal government", even though the previous design of the Senate didn't allow much state influence anyway compared to bodies such as the German Bundesrat.Wikipedia

Added: Apr. 8, 1913

18th Amendment[edit]

Overview: Prohibited the sale of alcohol. The only amendment to try to take away rights – it almost tore the country apart. It was infamous for giving Al Capone something to do. The U.S. is still trying to resolve some of the mess that this caused, as it could snarkily be called the "Organized Crime Empowerment amendment". - The only amendment ever to be repealed by another amendment. And all that in a span of 15 years.

Added: Jan. 16, 1919

19th Amendment[edit]

Overview: Gave women the right to vote. Before this amendment's ratification, it was up to each state to decide whether or not to extend suffrage to women; most of them didn't. Interestingly enough, one female representative (Jeanette Rankin of Montana) had a chance to vote on it, becoming - as she said - "the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote."

Added: Aug. 18, 1920

20th Amendment[edit]

Overview: Moved the inauguration of the President and Vice President up to Jan. 20. (It used to be in March.) This means that a president-elect only has to wait two months instead of four before the Oval Office gets vacated.

Added: Jan. 23, 1933

21st Amendment[edit]

Overview: Repeals the 18th amendment, ending Prohibition. (Finally!) Kept the proles medicated during the Depression. Unfortunately, Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion due to the 16th amendment.

Added: Dec. 5, 1933

22nd Amendment[edit]

Overview: Two-term limit for U.S. Presidents. This had been an observed tradition established by George Washington way back at the outset, and so no-one thought about it until FDR decided to just keep on going was pushed to the podium in his wheelchair.[25]

Added: Feb. 27, 1951

23rd Amendment[edit]

Overview: Gave Washington, D.C. three electors. (Finally!)[26]

Added: Mar. 29, 1961

24th Amendment[edit]

Overview: Eliminates the poll tax. (The only tax so heinous that it had to be banned via a constitutional amendment, although by that time there were only a few states still levying it and the amount of money was far less than it had been in its heyday.)

Added: Jan. 23, 1964

25th Amendment[edit]

Overview: Boring stuff about the line of succession for the Prez. With all the assassinations going on in the '60s and the necessity of keeping the chain of command clear in the event of a sudden nuclear war opening with a "decapitation" strike, it became a topic of discussion. This ended a long time of Vice Presidents assuming the Presidency instead of becoming acting President on legally shaky grounds upon the death or resignation of the President. Now all constitutional doubts are eliminated and the newly ascended Vice President may in turn choose his own Vice nominate a VP, which gave us Rockefeller Republicans in the Ford White House.

Added: Feb. 10, 1967

26th Amendment[edit]

Overview: After years of sending 18-year-olds to die overseas, adults finally see fit to give them the right to vote.[27] Before this time it was up to the individual states to determine voting ages, and all but 4 set it at 21; of the remaining 4, 2 had it at 20 and 2 had it at 19. 18-year-olds promptly squander the opportunity.

Added: Jul. 1, 1971.

27th Amendment[edit]

Overview: If Congress gives itself a pay raise, it won't go into effect until after the next election. That way, congress folk won't necessarily be sure they will get it when they vote for it. Helps prevent the obvious conflict of interest.

Added: May 7, 1992. This one easily has the most entertaining story of all the amendments. The amendment was originally submitted to the States with the Bill of Rights way back in 1789. But it never reached the required number of ratifications, so it then languished for over 200 years until approved by that laggard Michigan. Most amendments nowadays have a specific time limit for ratification, but this one - like some others at the time - didn't. After Michigan ratified it, they sent it to the Chief Archivist of the United States, who reviewed it and added it to the Constitution. Some politicians were outraged and said he didn't have the right to amend the Constitution on his own. Then they went and read the rules, and found out he did have that right. So they eventually shut up about it.

It was ratified by Kentucky when they joined the U.S., but people forgot about that and it wasn't recorded. So Kentucky got to sign it twice due to a clerical error.

Almost amendments[edit]

The process for ratifying a new Amendment, laid out in Article 5, is deliberately difficult. The proposed Amendment must be passed by a ⅔ majority in both houses of Congress, or have ⅔ of the states call for a convention to amend the constitution, then have the amendment ratified by at least ¾ of the States.

Thousands of proposed Amendments have been submitted to Congress, from Amendments that would ban flag burning to Amendments that would outlaw gay marriage.

Of these, only 33 managed to obtain the required ⅔ majority in both houses.

Of these, 27 were ratified by the requisite number of States.

But what about the other 6? The ones that made it through Congress but didn't make it through the States?

That short but interesting list consists of:

  • The Congressional Apportionment Amendment: Only one of the original 12 proposed Amendments in the draft Bill of Rights submitted to the States has never been ratified. It would have changed the way the seats in the House of Representatives were apportioned until the total number of Representatives swelled to over 200 (like it has today), at which point it would have changed nothing.
  • The Titles of Nobility Amendment: The dreaded "missing 13th amendment" of the pseudolaw crowd. Submitted to the states in 1810, this would have revoked the citizenship of anyone who accepted a title of Nobility by a foreign power. Note that putting "Esquire" after your name does not count as a title of Nobility.
  • The Corwin Amendment: Submitted to the States in 1861, this would have made it impossible to Amend the constitution in such a way as to outlaw slavery. (Since this didn't get ratified, we got the 13th Amendment instead.) It was proposed as the Republicans'[28] last-ditch effort to avoid the Civil War and had it been ratified it would have become the thirteenth amendment instead. Due to having no expiration date, states could still vote on it and force it to pass, but probably not even Alabama is stupid enough for that, though that is debatable. Of the three states that did ratify it, Ohio rescinded its ratification in 1864, Illinois may have never actually and legally ratified it and Maryland saw the need to rescind it in 2014.[29] Interestingly none of those states ever seceded and Maryland was the only to hold slaves at the time.
  • The Child Labor Amendment: Submitted to the States in 1924, this would have allowed the Federal government to pass child labor laws. The 1941 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Darby Lumber Co. made this amendment unnecessary.
  • The Equal Rights Amendment: Submitted to the States in 1972, with a built-in 7-( later extended to 10) year ratification time limit in the proposing resolution's preamble. It read, in substantive part: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."
  • The D.C. Voting Rights Amendment: Submitted to the States in 1978, with a built-in 7-year ratification time limit in its text. It would have repealed and replaced the 23rd Amendment, providing for a sort of partial statehood for Washington, D.C., treating it as a state for purposes of choosing the President and Vice President, representation in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and for purposes of amending the Constitution, while continuing to deny it the limited sovereignty and independence enjoyed by full states.[30]

As you can see, the first four of these six proposed amendments could still technically become law (along similar lines as the 27th), but as the issues they address have either been resolved or their passage would not change much of anything, such passage is highly unlikely. Having received several more ratifications recently, the fifth's status is currently disputed in court.

See also[edit]

External Links[edit]


  1. Of course this doesn't always work out in practice, and how far these rights go only go so far as to how willing the government is to enforce these rights...
  2. Also see the Equal Protection Clause from the 14th Amendment
  3. unless specific laws barring you from voting has been declared unconstitutional like in the many voting amendments stated below
  4. usually the Executive Authority is called the Governor
  5. which is a document ordering an election
  6. This problem is much worse now. Back in the 1790 census, the ratio between most popular state and least popular state was 10. Now in the 2020 census it was 67.
  7. This tends to happen quite often as the Vice President tends to have better things to do then do Senate business!
  8. Thanks Seventeenth Amendment!
  9. Examples include the 1984 Indiana 8th House election and 1974 New Hampshire Senate election.
  10. The debate will continue until a vote of 60 to invoke closure. This tactic has been used time and time again to stall government.
  11. Senate dress codes are no more due to John Fetterman!
  12. Not to be confused with the slasher or the Canadian actor.
  13. The Twenty-Seventh Amendment to the Constitution states that any change to the salary will only take affect in till after an election.
  14. Which were quite common back in early America!


  1. Mostly, but not quite. In the first presidential election in several states such as New Jersey, women and black people could vote. This was soon stopped.
  2. This phrase was conspicuously absent in the otherwise remarkably similar Confederate Constitution
  3. What If The House Of Representatives Had More Than 435 Seats? FiveThirtyEight. Publish on Aug 12, 2021,
  4. Supreme Court cases: Powell v. McCormack (1969) and U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton(1974)
  5. Storer v. Brown (1974)
  6. Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486 (1969) and U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995).
  7. This happened in the case of Senator-elect Rush Holt of West Virginia in 1935
  8. Like in the cases of Henry Clay of Kentucky, Armistead Mason of Virginia, and John Eaton of Tennessee. Nobody objected to their seating in the Senate so it was not considered precedent.
  10. Voter ID laws in North Carolina were specifically created to disenfranchise as much Black people as possible. This happened in 2021
  11. Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, 576 U.S. 787 (2015)
  12. Moore v. Harper, 600 U.S. ___ (2023)
  13. NLRB v. Canning, 573 U.S. 513, 564–64 (2014) (quoting United States v. Ballin, 144 U.S. 1, 5 (1892)
  14. Congressional Salaries and Allowances: In Brief, Updated September 19, 2023, accessed at September 22, 2023,
  15. Williamson v. United States, 207 U.S. 425, 446 (1908)
  16. McMillan, 412 U.S. at 312.
  17. McMillan, 412 U.S. at 324
  18. duh!
  19. even constitutions of dictatorships like the GDR may nominally have them
  20. Before 2007, this had been interpreted with emphasis on the well-regulated militia portion of the law. After 2007, it is interpreted by the Supreme Court to mean a right to personal firearm ownership. See District of Columbia v. Heller:
  21. This is mostly a residual from the time the British governed over the thirteen colonies, and did things like this all the time
  22. This amendment together with the fourteenth is often understood to implicitly guarantee a "right to privacy" that was the basis for Roe v. Wade and many other cases
  23. This was mainly addressing a common fear at the time that stated that any enumeration of rights could be misunderstood to exclude all other rights. This of course proved utterly groundless
  24. This amendment became necessary after one of the earlier presidential elections resulted in a contradictory and complicated outcome including President and Vice President from different parties who hated each other (just imagine Obama/Romney for a second)
  25. However both Teddy Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant ran for a third non-consecutive term after having been out of office; both failed to get the Republican nomination in no small part due to the tradition of Washington
  26. Ok, now the Finally!s are just a joke.
  27. See also P. F. Sloan's 1965 hit single "Eve of Destruction", which contains the line: "You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'," and which later reappeared on an episode of The Greatest American Hero
  28. you read that right