“Constitutional Amendments” Series – Amendment XXVII – “Financial Compensation for the Congress”

Gregory Watson holding his Student Academic Record update, showing the new “A+” grade he received for his college essay proposing the 27th Amendment’s passage, 2018. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman)

Amendment Twenty-seven to the Constitution was ratified on May 7, 1992. It forbids any changes to the salary of Congress members from taking effect until the next election concludes. The official text is written as such:

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

Despite being the most recent addition to the Constitution, it is among the first proposed amendments to exist in American history. In response to concerns that the Constitution did not have enough protections for the rights of the states and individual citizens, Representative and future President James Madison supervised the creation of a list of twelve potential amendments to be added to the Constitution. One of the proposed amendments would have the salaries of Congress members not change until after the next corresponding election was over. Originally meant to be added to Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution, the proposed amendment was designed to prevent corruption in the Legislative Branch, since none of the Congress members would be paid more in their salaries before being voted out of office. Ten of the proposed amendments, excluding the Congressional finance proposal and one other, were accepted and subsequently ratified in 1791.

The proposed amendment faded out of general memory until 1982, when University of Texas at Austin student Gregory Watson wrote a political science essay theorizing that it was still “live” and could still be added to the Constitution. Unsatisfied with the “C” grade that the paper received, Watson launched a campaign of letter-writing to state legislatures across the country. During his campaign, Watson found out that Virginia, Ohio, Wyoming, and Kentucky had ratified the proposed amendment at different times from 1791 to 1978, with the more modern ratifications being done as an act of protest against Congressional acts that raised the pay rates for elected officials. Watson’s campaign gained greater traction in 1983 and 1984, with Maine and Colorado becoming the first new states to ratify the old proposed amendment in direct response to his campaign. Michigan became the thirty-eighth state to ratify the amendment on May 7, 1992, thereby making it the Twenty-seventh Amendment, two-hundred years after it was originally created. In 2016, after Watson’s old government professor was tracked down by UT Austin’s government department, she agreed to change the grade for his essay from a “C” to an “A.”

The Twenty-seventh Amendment has faced very little litigation since its ratification. In the federal courts, it has been frequently determined that the amendment has no bearing on cost-of-living adjustments issued by Congress. Although the pay rates for members of Congress are still not allowed to be changed until after the general elections are held, fluctuations in salary that are designed to meet cost-of-living requirements are not under the same obligation. The Twenty-seventh Amendment is unique for the time span between its creation and its ratification, the lobbying campaign that brought it back into the public consciousness, and the rediscovery of seemingly long-lost political actions made with it in the distant past.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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