|Date(s):||May 20, 1992|
|Location(s):||District of Columbia, District of Columb|
|Tag(s):||Constituition, Law, Politics, Government|
|Course:||“American History since the Civil War,” University of Toronto Scarborough|
|Rating:||5 (3 votes)|
It would seem that James Madison had risen from the grave. Or at least one of his 12 original Constitutional amendments had been resuscitated. With near unanimity (Senate: 99-0; House: 414-3) Congress showed its support for the Twenty-Seventh Amendment on May 20,1992. The Amendment prohibits adjustments to Congressional salaries from taking effect before an election intercedes. Yet the vote was largely meaningless, as earlier in the month Michigan had become the thirty-eighth state to ratify the proposal – thus giving it the three-quarters proportion needed to amend the Constitution. Six states originally ratified the proposal between 1789 and 1791; Ohio became the seventh in 1873. Only one other state (Wyoming, in 1978) would endorse it before a legislative aide in Texas named Gregory Watson stumbled across the amendment in 1982 and initiated a campaign for its revival. By 1988, a total of 25 states had ratified Madison's motion.
But had the 203 years between its proposal and ultimate adoption rendered the earliest states' approval invalid? No, according to Don Wilson, Archivist of the United States, who certified the Amendment's validity six days prior to the vote in Congress. (It has become practice recently for proposals to contain a sunset clause – typically seven years – but this was not the case with Madison's amendments.) And thus it became law. Although why – after having lain dormant for two centuries – should this proposal suddenly take on such importance?
There is a theory as to how “structural” amendments such as the Twenty-Seventh arise. An event triggers widespread awareness of a problem with how government works. In response, a coalition forms that amends the Constitution to resolve the problem. In 1989, Congress implemented pay raises that saw Senate salaries increase 14 percent – and House salaries go up 40 percent – by 1991. Over this same time frame, public confidence in Congress fell significantly. There was little public appetite for Congressional pay increases in the face of growing perceptions of arrogance and allegations of corruption against some members of Congress. It is no surprise then that the elections of 1990 and 1992 revealed strong anti-incumbent sentiments amongst the electorate. Combined with Watson's drive, this led 15 states (including the linchpin, Michigan) to endorse the resolution between 1989 and 1992, as a means of restoring some legitimacy to the governing institutions in the public’s eye. It is also why when Congress backed the resolution on May 20 – given it had no legal impact – the vote was seen as largely political.
The Twenty-Seventh Amendment has been described as amendment by “stealth,” given the lengthy delay between proposal and ratification. Nevertheless, it is an example of the tradition of using the constitution to correct a structural problem of government, one even the Founding Fathers recognized as an issue. “James Madison saw something wrong with members of Congress increasing their own salaries, unchecked by their constituencies... This is progress, after 200 years of delay,” explained Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio.