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The 27th Amendment to the United States Constitution Explained

Amendment XXVII of the United States Constitution deals with congressional pay. It prohibits Congress from changing its salary compensation until after the mid-term election. The 27th Amendment became law in the United States in 1992 after Congress voted to affirm the constitutional amendment’s legality.

A Peculiar History

The 27th Amendment has a peculiar history. It was ratified in 1993 but was written over 200 years earlier by James Madison in 1789. As the Constitutional Convention members were finishing their work of drafting the Constitution, the daunting task of getting the document passed loomed heavily over their proceedings. The articles of the Constitution were hotly debated and not fully accepted by state legislators.

A deal was made that if a set of amendments guaranteeing public rights were added, the states would ratify the Constitution. Madison proposed twelve amendments, the 12th amendment meant to prevent Congress or the President from arbitrarily setting its compensation without oversight.

The first ten of Madison’s amendments were successfully ratified and collectively became known as the Bill of Rights. The 11th amendment and 12th amendment failed to gain the necessary three-fourths majority.

Political Limbo

Madison’s twelfth amendment was soon forgotten and hung in political limbo for two centuries. Usually, an amendment is written with a time limit if not ratified within the time limit. Madison did not set a time limit since he expected it to be ratified right away with the other eleven amendments. With no limitation, it remained on the books waiting for enough states to approve it.

This “compensation amendment” occasionally surfaced with public outcries against congressional salary. The amendment’s ratification, for instance, by Ohio in 1873 after Congress voted for congressional pay increases. Wyoming ratified it in 1977 under similar circumstances. But after all this time, only nine states had ratified Madison’s original amendment.

Enter A Political Science Student

The compensation amendment might still be in limbo had it not been for a political science college student who, in 1982, discovered it while searching for a topic for a term paper. The University of Texas sophomore Gregory D. Watson became excited about the possibility that the compensation amendment could still become law and wrote his paper on that possibility. His excitement turned to disappointment when his paper only received a C grade. His disappointment turned then into determination to get the amendment passed in the United States.

Over the next ten years, Watson dedicated his energy to persuading state legislators to finish ratifying the amendment. Watson’s efforts were well-timed, as the American public was irritated with Congress in the 1980s because of its pay raises. Watson’s efforts finally bore fruit on May 7, 1992, when the state of Michigan became the thirty-eighth state to ratify Madison’s amendment, providing the necessary three-fourth majority to make it law.

The interval of 202 years and seven months had elapsed when the amendment was written and finally passed. During this time, sixteen amendments had been made, making it the twenty-seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution.

One Last Hurdle

Even though the requirements had been met to become law, the proposed Amendment had to go through one last hurdle for eventual ratification. Because such a long time had elapsed, many argued that it was not a legal ratification process. However, the government archivist declared that the process had been legal according to Article V of the Constitution’s requirements. On May 20, 1992, Congress voted nearly unanimously to declare the 27th Amendment legal ratification and thus part of the United States Constitution.

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