Congress sets its own salary by voting for or against pay raises. The 27th Amendment concerns pay increases and decreases for the members of Congress. For example, the 27th Amendment specifies that any changes made to members of Congress’ pay must take effect at the beginning of the term after the pay raise is voted in. Similarly, if their salaries are to decrease, then the decrease will not take place until after the next election has passed. To explore this concept, consider the following 27th Amendment definition.
Definition of 27th Amendment
- The amendment to the U.S. Constitution that concerns changes in pay for members of Congress.
September 25, 1789
What is the 27th Amendment
The 27th Amendment is the amendment to the United States Constitution that concerns changes in the rate of pay for members of Congress. Specifically, the text of the amendment reads:
“No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”
What this means is that if a law is passed that would either increase or decrease a member of Congress’ pay, then Congress must wait until after the next election cycle for that change to take effect.
History of the 27th Amendment
The history of the 27th Amendment is significantly lengthier than any of the other amendments to the Constitution. For example, the 27th Amendment was proposed almost 200 years before it was finally ratified by the states. To put into perspective the history of the 27th Amendment and its passage, the President at the time of its official ratification was William Jefferson Clinton.
Originally, 12 amendments to the Constitution were submitted by the First Congress to the states for the purpose of ratification. Two years later, 10 of those amendments were approved, which led to the creation of the Bill of Rights. The other two amendments, however, remained unapproved, including what would eventually become the 27th Amendment. The 27th Amendment resurfaced 200 years later, and its text reflected the still relatively popular belief that Congress should not be able to arbitrarily vote for pay raises for itself without those votes being challenged.
Despite the fact that people were worried about the power that Congress had insofar as being able to set its own salary, the states ultimately ratified the amendment in bursts, starting with only six of the states: Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia. The reason why it took so long for the amendment to be ratified was because the Supreme Court had previously held that, if an amendment did not have a specific date by which it had to be ratified, state legislatures were permitted to approve the amendment at their leisure.
The 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, contained a provision that it had to be approved within seven years, else the amendment would be deemed “inoperative.” Such was not the case with the 27th Amendment. This allowed the final states to ratify the amendment – Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and New Jersey – to ratify the amendment in May of 1992. These states forced the ratification of the amendment over the objections of those elected officials who did not want the amendment to pass.
Only 38 states were needed in order to ratify the 27th Amendment. However, Kentucky discovered that it had actually ratified the amendment decades prior. The few states that were left then speedily ratified the amendment in succession before it was made official. Congress then passed a measure agreeing that the amendment was indeed valid. Challenges could no longer be offered against the amendment, and the amendment was finally considered officially and completely ratified.
How the 27th Amendment was Reintroduced
The history of the 27th Amendment becomes even more interesting when considering how the amendment was ultimately reintroduced. Texas university student Gregory D. Watson actually discovered the outstanding amendment in 1982, while doing research for a school paper. He wrote his paper on the idea that, because the amendment did not have an expiration date, it could still be added to the Constitution if the required number of states agreed to ratify it. Interestingly, his professor did not agree and gave him a “C” grade on his paper.
Watson then decided to prove his argument by starting a one-man campaign to fight for the addition of the 27th Amendment to the Constitution. Over the next several months, Watson wrote letters to several members of Congress in the hope of recruiting supporters of his cause. He hit his first milestone the following year, when a senator from Maine forwarded Watson’s proposal to the state’s legislature, and the amendment was promptly ratified. Colorado followed suit one year later.
Inspired by these victories, Watson spent several thousand dollars out of pocket on the drafting and mailing of even more letters to state legislators across the U.S. Watson actually had accidentally perfect timing, in that Congress had recently been scolded for giving itself several pay raises during the 1980s.
Watson’s cause then saw a significant increase in bipartisan support. Five states ratified the amendment in 1985, and by the end of the decade, nearly 20 additional states had done the same. Michigan became the 38th state – the final state necessary for ratification – to ratify the amendment in May of 1992.
However, even after the 27th Amendment was ratified by three-fourths of the states, there remained many who doubted that it would go on to become the law. The 27th Amendment was eventually concluded to have met all of its necessary requirements, and on May 20, 1992, it was officially made into law. This was not yet the end of Watson’s good luck, though. In early 2017, the University of Texas at Austin officially changed Watson’s term paper grade from a “C” to an “A”.
What is COLA
The term COLA stands for Cost of Living Adjustment. A COLA allows salaries to be increased in relation to the rate of the economy’s inflation. Inflation is the term used to describe the situation wherein the prices of goods and services increases because the value of the country’s currency has decreased. Because these prices increase, so too should Americans’ salaries.
However, the 27th Amendment does not have any influence over COLA, and so the members of Congress are prohibited from automatically receiving COLA increases on their salaries. Congressional pay increases must be voted on, regardless of cost of living changes, and cannot go into effect until the following term.
27th Amendment Example Involving a Ratification Date
An example of 27th Amendment challenges cannot be found in any Supreme Court cases, perhaps because it is too young, and/or too straightforward, to be referenced in a lawsuit. However, there does exist a case that was heard back in 1939 that tackled the issue of an amendment not having a specific ratification date, similar to the process in which the 27th Amendment had been tied up. In Coleman v. Miller, the courts tackled the controversy that surrounded the ratification process with regard to regulating the amount of time that is allowed to pass between the initial passage of an amendment and its eventual ratification.
The details of the case are as follows. In June of 1924, Congress passed the Child Labor Amendment, which regulates the amount of work a child under the age of 18 years old is permitted to do. Three-fourths of the states are needed to ratify an amendment before it becomes part of the Constitution, and in this case, 20 state senators voted to pass the amendment, and 20 voted against it. Kansas was to be the deciding vote. The state initially rejected the amendment, but the amendment was reintroduced before the state senate in 1937.
After Kansas ultimately voted in favor of passing the amendment, Rolla W. Coleman, a state senator, along with 23 additional members of the Kansas legislature, sued Clarence W. Miller, the secretary of the state senate. Their complaint concerned whether Kansas’ ratification process was constitutional, and they claimed that, by 1937, – 13 years after the amendment was initially proposed by Congress – the amendment had “lost vitality,” and should have no longer been up for consideration.
Supreme Court Ruling
The Kansas Supreme Court heard the case and sustained the plaintiffs’ rights to bring the lawsuit. However, the plaintiffs were ultimately overruled, the ratification upheld, and their writ denied. The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the question then became whether any of the following elements conflicted with the ratification process:
- The ultimate vote to pass the amendment
- Kansas’ prior rejection of the amendment
- The length of time that had passed between the proposal and ratification of the amendment
The Court ultimately held, in a 7-2 decision, that it was not the Supreme Court’s function to decide this matter, but that any proposed amendment that has been submitted for ratification, which does not specify a deadline for ratification, may be ratified at any time. The Court found the question to be mainly political, and held that no legal criteria existed for its decision. Therefore, the Court decided Congress was the only body with the authority to decide this issue.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Bipartisan – An agreement made between two political parties that usually stand in opposition of each other’s policies.
- Overrule – The rejection of an argument by a court through the exercising of its superior authority.
- Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
- Ratify – Give formal consent to something, thereby making it official.
- Writ – A written, sealed document issued by a court or other legal authority.