The bizarre, true story of the 27th Amendment
Some Constitutional amendments are more “well-known” than others. For example, most individuals recall the First Amendment prohibits Congress from making any law respecting an established religion, protects freedom of the press and speech, and the right to peaceably assemble to petition the government. The Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, and the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote.
But what do you know about the 27th Amendment? The most recent Constitutional amendment, ratified on May 5, 1992, states that members of Congress cannot give themselves a raise on demand. This sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But what a lot of people don’t know is that it took two centuries for Congress to pass this amendment. But why?
Trying to pass the “compensation amendment”
Founding Father James Madison first proposed the 27th Amendment during the first session of Congress in 1789. He referred to it as the “compensation amendment” and argued Congress members should not be trusted to give themselves a raise at their own will. Previously, the Constitutional Convention decided that Congress members would set their own pay rate. But according to Madison, a rational man who would later serve as President, this rule would potentially lead to political misconduct.
“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,” Madison wrote during the discussion.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Madison’s request was met with angry opponents. His opponents argued that Congress members were responsible enough to regulate their own compensations. They were grown men, after all. They could be trusted. Despite the negativity, Congress members approved Madison’s Constitutional amendment in September 1789, but it failed to win ratification.
Will it pass?
For the next two centuries, the 27th Amendment would float in political limbo. Occasionally, it would resurface when lawmakers would remind Congress that the amendment still needed to be ratified. Many Congress members wanted to decide when they could receive their raises. In 1873, the Ohio state legislature voted to ratify the amendment to protest a congressional pay raise nicknamed the “Salary Grab Act.”
It would take close to another century later, in 1977, when Wyoming and seven other states followed in Ohio’s footsteps to hopefully ratify the amendment after Congress gave itself another pay increase. State legislatures knew Congress members should not make this decision on their own, echoing President Madison’s original belief. All they needed was 29 additional signatures, but how would it happen?
It was all for a grade
The 27th Amendment never would have passed if it wasn’t for Gregory D. Watson, a young college student at the University of Texas-Austin. In 1982, the sophomore was conducting research for his government class when he read the story of the lost amendment. He commented that the story “pertaining to congressional pay raises immediately leaped off the page to me.”
Watson knew he discovered an interesting topic, especially when he realized the amendment didn’t have an expiration date. He wrote a term paper about this topic and that the amendment could still be added to the Constitution. Unfortunately, his professor wasn’t impressed, and Watson received a “C” grade on the paper. We have a feeling his professor would later regret this decision.
Following the assignment, Watson became determined to get the 27th Amendment ratified. He convinced Maine’s senators to vote, and then on May 7, 1992, he helped Michigan state legislatures become the 38th and final state to ratify the amendment. Congress voted the 27th Amendment into law on May 20, 1992. Watson later described the day as the happiest day of his life. He said, “The American people want a Congress that is honest, that has integrity. This Amendment is one vehicle by which some degree of decorum can be restored.”
Pay attention to your class assignments. You never know what might happen. Your work might even change history.