The topic of discussion for this Constitution Monday comes from the Twenty-seventh Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.” This provision gives the people of the United States plenty of time to approve or disapprove of any pay raises that members of Congress give to themselves.
The history of this amendment is long as well as very interesting. W. Cleon Skousen explained that “… some states hesitated [to ratify] the Constitution because it had no Bill of Rights. George Washington and others encouraged them to give their suggestions for a Bill of Rights and the states sent in 189 proposals. These were reduced to seventeen by James Madison and submitted to Congress. Congress passed twelve and submitted them to the states for ratification. Ten were ratified and became our first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. What happened to the other two proposals? Since the 7-year for ratifying an Amendment was not imposed until the 18th Amendment, the proposals continued to float, waiting for enough states to ratify them. One was included in the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 and the other was ratified as the Twenty-seventh Amendment in 1992, nearly 203 years after being submitted to the states!
“It was James Madison who commented that the provision for Congress to set its own salary was `indecent.’ His concern is valid. Since congressional pay has not been as closely watched by the people as it should have been, Congress has gradually increased the salary for its members to an alarming…. Due to these major pay increases a search for answers ensued. In1982, a Texas university student rediscovered this proposed amendment. Over the next ten years, and, no doubt, spurred by concern over these major pay increases, additional state legislatures ratified this amendment. Finally, in 1992, the Twenty-seventh Amendment was ratified by the required number of states and was added to the Constitution.” (See The Making of America – The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution, p. 764.)
John C. Eastman of The Heritage Foundation gave this explanation: “On June 8, 1789 James Madison proposed the Congressional Compensation Amendment as one of many that he presented to the House of Representatives that day. After debate, the House of Representatives and the Senate approved the proposed amendment and forwarded it and eleven others to the states. Only six states ratified it, however, and thus it did not become part of the Bill of Rights. The proposed amendment languished for almost two hundred years before becoming the object of a successful ratification campaign in the 1980s, ultimately resulting in its formal acceptance by Congress as the Twenty-seventh Amendment on May 20, 1992.
“At the Constitutional Convention, the Framers heatedly debated the question of whether individual states or the new national government would compensate elected representatives. The Compensation Clause of Article I, Section 6, was the result, providing that the central government would pay the representatives from the federal treasury as established by federal law.
“The Anti-Federalists and others at state ratifying conventions found this compensation arrangement deeply worrisome; because the Members of Congress enacted the very law that set their salary, there was no check on Congress’s ability to enrich itself. It was a classic case of the danger of self-dealing corruption. Madison responded to that criticism with the proposed Compensation Amendment….
“The issue of congressional compensation was the subject of periodic legislation and attendant political maneuvering in succeeding years. Particularly unpopular with the electorate was the notorious `Salary Grab’ Act of 1873, which not only granted a pay raise to legislators but also made it retroactive. One of the Ohio General Assembly’s responses to the act was ratification of the dormant Compensation Amendment, thus becoming the seventh state to do so, eighty-four years after Maryland, which was the first state to ratify.
“Over a century later, the amendment became the object of a grassroots ratification campaign initiated by a college undergraduate who had authored a term paper on the subject in 1982. Despite widespread doubt about the propriety of actually adopting the long-dormant amendment should it ever be fully ratified, the ratification campaign gathered momentum. On May 7, 1992, Michigan became the thirty-eighth state to ratify the Compensation Amendment, completing the process initiated over two hundred years earlier by the First Congress in 1789.”
The amendment was challenged in court several times. Eastman explained the results: “Ironically, after lying dormant for two hundred years, this amendment may now have been put back to sleep. Nevertheless, it is clear that Congress still has the option of voluntarily abiding by the amendment.” (See The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, pp. 433-434.)