What is the Twenty-Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution?

Attorney Trey Porter
Trey Porter

What is the Twenty-Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution?

twenty-seventh amendment us constitution

The Twenty-Seventh Amendment states that any salary changes of members of Congress cannot take place until after the next election at the House of Representatives.

WHAT IS THE TEXT TO THE TWENTY-SEVENTH AMENDMENT TO THE CONSTITUTION?

U.S. CONST. AMEND. XXVII. FINANCIAL COMPENSATION OF SERVICES IN CONGRESS.

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 IS THE HISTORICAL ORIGIN OF THE TWENTY-SEVENTH AMENDMENT?

Compared to previous amendments that caused a stir among the general public, the Twenty-Seventh Amendment sounds very unassuming. All it means is that members of Congress cannot potentially abuse their positions of power by suddenly giving themselves raises right before being voted out of office. However, it actually has a very interesting background.

Although the Twenty-Seventh Amendment is the most recent, having been ratified in 1992, its journey actually began about 202 years earlier. In 1789, James Madison proposed a mid-term pay raise ban as one of several Constitutional amendments. He did not feel it was right for Congress to set their own pay. Congress approved all the amendments, but only 10 of them were ratified by the states. These 10 went on to be called the Bill of Rights, and the “compensation amendment” was forgotten. 

THE AMENDMENT THAT SAT IN LIMBO

Over the next two hundred years, the amendment stayed relatively unnoticed. From time to time it gained attention from various states, mainly during situations in which pay raises for members of Congress were deemed unfair. In fact, it had been ratified from 1791 to 1978 by Virginia, Ohio, Wyoming, and Kentucky. Yet it wasn’t until 1982 when the compensation amendment would finally get some recognition.

THE BAD GRADE THAT RATIFIED AN AMENDMENT

It’s likely that the Twenty-Seventh Amendment would not have seen the light of day for another hundred years had it not been for an intrepid college student who did not think he deserved a low grade on an assignment. In 1982, a University of Texas at Austin student named Gregory Watson was doing research for his class paper when he found a book that featured a chapter on amendments that were passed but not ratified by the states. He dug further and discovered the long-ignored compensation amendment. He realized there was no ratification deadline based on the extremely spread out ratification dates from Ohio, Kentucky, Wyoming, and Virginia. Watson concluded that technically, it can still be ratified. He argued this point in his paper, but his teaching assistant gave him a C. When he discussed the matter with his professor, she refused to change the grade.

Undeterred, Watson took matters into his own hands to prove his professor wrong. He wrote to members of Congress urging them to ratify the amendment. At first Watson received no responses, but as he continued to write, lawmakers began to respond. Soon, one after the other, the states ratified it. Ten years and countless letters later, Watson accomplished his task of getting the 38 necessary states to ratify the Twenty-Seventh Amendment.

Years later, news of Watson’s success reached his former professor, who realized he didn’t deserve the grade she gave him. Thirty-five years after Watson submitted his paper in her classroom, she contacted the school to formally change his grade from a C to an A.

WHAT DOES THE TWENTY-SEVENTH AMENDMENT DO?

The Twenty-Seventh Amendment restricts changes to the salaries of members of Congress, such that any changes can only take place after the next election of the House of Representatives. This avoids any potential abuse of power, such that members of Congress may give themselves raises before they are voted out of office. 

TWENTY-SEVENTH AMENDMENT

Had things been a little different, the Twenty-Seventh Amendment would have been part of the legendary Bill of Rights. It has the distinction of being among the first dozen proposed by Madison. However, because it did not reach the required three-fourths of states to ratify it, the Twenty-Seventh Amendment was condemned to near obscurity for 200 years. It resurfaced on several occasions when a state ratified it to make a point about Congressional salary increases. It took a disgruntled but stubborn college student to bring the amendment back to the light and into the Constitution.

OTHER UNRATIFIED AMENDMENTS

The Twenty-Seventh Amendment is not the only one that was not ratified by the states. To date, there are six other amendments that passed Congress but did not receive enough state approval. Older amendments may still have a chance of being fully ratified because of the lack of a deadline. However, the later amendments had ratification due dates which have long passed, so there’s little to no chance of them being accepted.

  • Congressional Apportionment Amendment: The Congressional Apportionment Amendment was the second of Madison’s original 12 proposed amendments that did not get ratified at the time. It would have determined the appropriate number of seats in the House of Representatives using a mathematical formula. However, there was an inconsistency in the formula between the final draft and the initial draft that Congress received, which would have drastically changed the number of seats allowed; thus, the amendment was not ratified.

    Like the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, the Congressional Apportionment Amendment does not have an expiration date for ratification, so technically it can still become official if it gets the required number of states.

  • Titles of Nobility Amendment: This amendment stated that anyone given a nobility title  from a foreign nation without consent from Congress must give up their American citizenship. Although it quickly passed it in 1812, the Titles of Nobility amendment hit a wall during ratification because of poor communication between the federal government and the states. In fact, it’s been nicknamed “the missing Thirteenth Amendment” because it was mistakenly added to certain copies of books listing statutes and even copies of the Constitution.
  • Corwin Amendment: This amendment was proposed to placate the seceding Southern states after Abraham Lincoln was elected president. It stated that the federal government would not have the power to abolish slavery. Fearing a civil war, outgoing president James Buchanan called for Congress to propose this amendment to assure the southern states that Lincoln’s administration will not halt the expansion of slavery. Although it quickly passed in 1861, congressional representatives from the seven seceding states refused to vote and ultimately, only two states ratified it.
  • Equal Rights Amendment: The most famous of the six is the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). It was first proposed in 1923 and would have granted equal legal rights for men and women. While Congress originally ignored it, by the 1960s and 1970s, the ERA returned to the spotlight because of the women’s rights movement. However, it ultimately failed to get the required number of states to ratify it. Unlike the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, the ERA had a seven-year time ratification time limit which expired in 1982. 
  • Child Labor Amendment: This amendment was a product of the Progressive Era, when the public had grown concerned with young children being maimed or killed while working in factories, mines, and other hazardous sites. The Child Labor Amendment was one of multiple attempts to regulate child labor in the early 20th century. The Supreme Court struck various child labor laws down as unconstitutional. Congress then proposed a constitutional amendment in 1924, which passed both branches. However, it was 10 states short of being ratified.

    By 1938 Congress had passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which prohibited children under 16 from working and children under 18 from working in hazardous conditions. This law rendered the Child Labor Amendment unnecessary.

  • D.C. Voting Rights Amendment: Although the Twenty-Third Amendment gave the residents of Washington, D.C. the right to take part in the electoral college, the Voting Rights Amendment would have allowed the nation’s capital to also have representation in Congress and in the Constitutional amending process.

    The Voting Rights Amendment was proposed in 1977 and was passed by both the Senate and the House a year later. However, its ratification time limit of seven years ended before it was able to achieve the required number of states.

TWENTY-SEVENTH AMENDMENT COURT CASES

There were a few court cases regarding the Twenty-Seventh Amendment.

  • In Boehner vs. Anderson (1994), s everal members of Congress argued that cost of living adjustment (COLA) provisions and the quadrennial pay raise system set by the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 violated the Twenty-Seventh Amendment. The United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the provisions and pay raise did not violate the amendment because they did not take into effect until after the elections. 
  • In Schaffer vs. Clinton (2001), the COLA provisions in the Ethics Reform Act were once again challenged. The plaintiffs charged that automatic COLA increases are giving legislators salary increases prior to a new session. The United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit ruled that the automatic raises did not violate the Twenty-Seventh Amendment and dismissed the case.
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Attorney Trey Porter

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Trey Porter is one of the highest-rated criminal defense attorneys in Texas. Nationally recognized, Mr. Porter relentlessly fights to protect and assert his clients’ constitutional rights in and out of courtrooms across the state.

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