Twenty-Seventh Amendment

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Twenty-Seventh Amendment

The Twenty-seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

No law, varying the compensation for the services of Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

The long history of the Twenty-seventh Amendment is curious and unprecedented. The amendment was first drafted by James Madison in 1789 and proposed by the First Congress in 1789 as part of the original Bill of Rights. The proposed amendment did not fare well, as only six states ratified it during the period in which the first ten amendments were ratified by the requisite three-fourths of the states. The amendment was largely neglected for the next two centuries; Ohio was the only state to approve the amendment in that period, ratifying it in 1873.

In 1982 Gregory Watson, a twenty-year-old student at the University of Texas, wrote a term paper arguing for ratification of the amendment. Watson received a 'C' grade for the paper and then embarked on a one-man campaign for the amendment's ratification. From his home in Austin, Texas, Watson wrote letters to state legislators across the country on an electric typewriter. During the 1980s, as state legislatures passed pay raises, public debate over the raises reached a fever pitch and state legislatures began to pass the measure, mostly as a symbolic gesture to appease voters. Few observers believed that the amendment would ever be ratified by the required thirty-eight states, but the tally of ratifying states began to mount. On May 7, 1992, Michigan became the thirty-eighth state to ratify the amendment, causing it to become part of the U.S. Constitution.

The effect of the Twenty-seventh Amendment is to prevent salary increases for federal legislators from taking effect until after an intervening election of members of the House of Representatives. The amendment is an expression of the concern that members of Congress, if left to their own devices, may choose to act in their own interests rather than the public interest. Because the amendment postpones salary increases until after an election, members of Congress may not immediately raise their own salaries. All Representatives must endure an election before a pay raise takes effect because Representatives are elected once every two years; Senators need not necessarily succeed in an election before a pay raise takes effect unless the pay raise is approved within two years of the Senator's next re-election effort.

The ratification process of the Twenty-seventh Amendment was by far the longest-running amendment effort in the history of the United States. Before the Twenty-seventh Amendment was ratified, the longest it had taken to ratify an amendment was four years. That measure, the Twenty-Second Amendment limiting the president to two terms in office, was ratified in 1951. The proposed Equal Rights Amendment, which would have become the Twenty-seventh Amendment had it passed, failed to win ratification by the required thirty-eight states during the ten-year period Congress had allowed for its consideration by the states.

The gradual manner in which the Twenty-seventh Amendment was passed has raised questions about its validity, with concerns centering on the wisdom of allowing changes to the Constitution without reference to the passage of time. In Dillon v. Gloss, 256 U.S. 368, 41 S. Ct. 510, 65 L. Ed. 994 (1921), the U.S. Supreme Court stated a requirement that ratification of amendments be contemporaneous with their proposal, but in Coleman v. Miller, 307 U.S. 433, 59 S. Ct. 972, 83 L. Ed. 1385 (1939), the High Court left it for Congress to decide whether a ratification was contemporaneous with its proposal. In Boehner v. Anderson, 809 F.Supp. 138 (D.D.C. 1992), aff'd, 30 F.3d 156, 308 U.S.App.D.C. 94 (1994), the District Court for the District of Columbia rejected a challenge to the constitutionality of pay raises in the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, Pub. L. 101-194, 103 Stat 1716 (1989). The court observed that the pay raises complied with the Twenty-seventh Amendment because they took effect after an election had intervened.

Further readings

Bernstein, Richard B. 1992."The Sleeper Wakes: The History of the Twenty-Seventh Amendment." Fordham Law Review 61 (December).

Dalzell, Stewart, and Eric J. Beste. 1994."Is the Twenty-Seventh Amendment 200 Years Too Late?" George Washington Law Review 62 (April).

Paulsen, Michael Stokes. 1993. "A General Theory of Article V: The Constitutional Lessons of the Twenty-Seventh Amendment." Yale Law Journal 103 (December).

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