The 27th Amendment: Raises for Congress

How a College Student's C-Grade Paper Changed the Constitution

U.S. Capitol at Dawn
Image by Erik Pronske Photography / Getty Images

Taking nearly 203 years and the efforts of a college student to finally win ratification, the 27th Amendment has one of the strangest histories of any amendment ever made to the U.S. Constitution.

The 27th Amendment requires that any increases or decreases in the base salary paid to members of Congress may not take effect until the next term of office for the U.S. representatives begins. This means that another congressional general election must have been held before the pay raise or cut can take effect. The intent of the Amendment is to prevent Congress from granting itself immediate pay raises.

The complete text of the 27th Amendment states:

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

Note that members of Congress are also legally eligible to receive the same annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) raise given to other federal employees. The 27th Amendment does not apply to these adjustments. The COLA raises take effect automatically on January 1 of each year unless Congress, through the passage of a joint resolution, votes to decline them — as it has done since 2009.

While the 27th Amendment is the Constitution’s most recently adopted amendment, it is also one of the first ones proposed.

History of the 27th Amendment

As it is today, congressional pay was a hotly debated topic in 1787 during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

Benjamin Franklin opposed paying congress members any salary at all. Doing so, Franklin argued, would result in representatives seeking office only to further their “selfish pursuits.” However, a majority of delegates disagreed; pointing out that Franklin’s payless plan would result in a Congress made up only of wealthy people who could afford holding federal offices.

Still, Franklin’s comments moved the delegates to look for a way to make sure people did not seek public office simply as a way to fatten their wallets. 

The delegates recalled their hatred for a feature of the English government called “placemen.” Placemen were seated members of Parliament who were appointed by the King to simultaneously serve in highly-paid administrative offices similar to presidential cabinet secretaries simply to buy their favorable votes in Parliament.

To prevent placemen in America, the Framers included the Incompatibility Clause of Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution. Called the “Cornerstone of the Constitution” by the Framers, the Incompatibility Clause states that “no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.”

Fine, but to the question of how much members of Congress would be paid, the Constitution states only that their salaries should be as “ascertained by Law” — meaning Congress would set its own pay.

To most of the American people and especially to James Madison, that sounded like a bad idea.

Enter the Bill of Rights

In 1789, Madison, largely to address the concerns of the Anti-Federalists, proposed the 12 — rather than 10 — amendments that would become the Bill of Rights when ratified in 1791.

One of the two amendments not successfully ratified at the time would eventually become the 27th Amendment.

While Madison did not want Congress to have the power to give itself raises, he also felt that giving the president a unilateral power to set congressional salaries would give the executive branch too much control over the legislative branch to be in the spirit of the system of “separation of powers” embodied throughout the Constitution. 

Instead, Madison suggested that the proposed amendment require that a congressional election had to take place before any pay increase could take effect. That way, he argued, if the people felt the raise was too large, they could vote “the rascals” out of office when they ran for re-election.

The Epic Ratification of the 27th Amendment

On September 25, 1789, what would much later become the 27th Amendment was listed as the second of 12 amendments sent to the states for ratification.

Fifteen months later, when 10 of the 12 amendments had been ratified to become the Bill of Rights, the future 27th Amendment was not among them.

By the time the time the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, only six states had ratified the congressional pay amendment. However, when the First Congress passed the Amendment in 1789, lawmakers had not specified a time limit within which the Amendment had to be ratified by the states.

By 1979 — 188 years later — only 10 of the 38 states required had ratified the 27th Amendment.

Student to the Rescue

Just as the 27th Amendment appeared destined to become little more than a footnote in history books, along came Gregory Watson, a sophomore student at the University of Texas in Austin.

In 1982, Watson was assigned to write an essay on government processes. Taking an interest in constitutional amendments that had not been ratified; he wrote his essay on the congressional pay amendment. Watson argued that since Congress had not set a time limit in 1789, it not only could but should be ratified now.

Unfortunately for Watson, but fortunately for the 27th Amendment, he was given a C on his paper. After his appeals to get the grade raised were rejected, Watson decided to take his appeal to the American people in a big way. Interviewed by NPR in 2017 Watson stated, “I thought right then and there, ‘I’m going to get that thing ratified.’”

Watson started by sending letters to state and federal legislators, most of who just filed away. The one exception was U.S. Senator William Cohen who convinced his home state of Maine to ratify the amendment in 1983.

Driven largely by the public’s dissatisfaction with the performance of Congress compared to its rapidly-rising salaries and benefits during the 1980s, the 27th Amendment ratification movement grew from a trickle to a flood.

During 1985 alone, five more states ratified it, and when Michigan approved it on May 7, 1992, the required 38 states had followed suit. The 27th Amendment was officially certified as an article of the U.S. Constitution on May 20, 1992 — a staggering 202 years, 7 months, and 10 days after the First Congress had proposed it.

Effects and Legacy of the 27th Amendment

The long-belated ratification of an amendment preventing Congress from voting itself an immediate pay raise shocked members of Congress and baffled legal scholars who questioned whether a proposal written by James Madison could still become part of the Constitution nearly 203 years later.

Over the years since its final ratification, the practical effect of the 27th Amendment has been minimal. Congress has voted to reject its annual automatic cost-of-living raise since 2009 and members know that proposing a general pay raise would be politically damaging. 

In that sense alone, the 27th Amendment represents an important gauge of the people’s report card on Congress through the centuries.

And what of our hero, college student Gregory Watson? In 2017, the University of Texas recognized his place in history by at last raising the grade on his 35-year-old essay from a C to an A.