The 27th Amendment's 200-Year Wait

Government often earns an unfortunate reputation for dragging its feet when it comes to getting anything done. While at times this notoriety contains itself to dinner conversation punch lines, it is true that some things have taken actual centuries to finish. The 27th and final amendment to the U.S. Constitution—the amendment dealing with changes to congressional compensation—was first proposed on September 25, 1789, but wasn’t fully ratified for more than 200 years. Talk about procrastination.

Drafted by James Madison, who is often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution,” the amendment was originally one of 12 proposed as part of the Bill of Rights. It declared that any changes to congressional pay would only take effect after an election, making it a bit harder for members of the House or Senate to ensure pay raises for themselves. According to the New York Times, Madison had believed that “there is a seeming impropriety in leaving any set of men without control to put their hand into the public coffers, to take out money to put in their pockets.”

However, of the states that made up the country during this period, only six—Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Delaware, Virginia, and Vermont—agreed to ratify the amendment, which wasn’t enough to earn the three-fourths majority necessary to make it official. As the country continued to grow, and a three-fourths majority became harder to attain, the plight of the congressional pay amendment became less important. Ohio ratified the amendment in 1873, and Wyoming did so in 1978, but that was it, until a college student named Gregory Watson wrote a class paper on the issue in 1982.

Watson’s professor at the University of Texas found the topic of his paper irrelevant, and gave him a “C” for his effort. But Watson’s research had inspired him to reignite support for congressional pay limitations. For the next 10 years, he worked across the country to get the amendment ratified, and his work paid off. On May 7, 1992, the Michigan House of Representatives approved it by a unanimous vote, giving the amendment the necessary three-fourths majority and ending the longest ratification process in U.S. history.

But while many may applaud Watson’s efforts to formally complete James Madison’s unfinished business, others at the time were not so sure that ratifying the amendment was what the “Father of the Constitution” would have wanted.

“To put specific things like this in our beautiful Constitution is disturbing,” said Don Edwards, who, in 1992, served as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Constitutional rights. “If James Madison had been interested in this provision, he would have put it in the Constitution. He was sitting there the whole time.”

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September 19, 2013 - 2:00pm
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