One might say that Gov. Doug Ducey’s decision Friday to veto legislation that would have granted an immediate and substantial increase in the pay that lawmakers receive was inspired by the constitutional amendment with the oddest history.
In his veto of Senate Bill 1558, the governor wrote that any changes made to the “per diem” allowances that lawmakers receive simply for showing up to work at the Capitol “should… be prospective, and apply to the next Legislature.”
That logic hews nicely to the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is infamous for being both the last amendment added to the Constitution and for taking some 202 years to be ratified.
The amendment is simple, saying that Congress can only give itself pay raises that don’t go into effect until after the next election – in essence, ensuring that voters have a chance to weigh a lawmaker’s vote on raising his or her pay before those larger paychecks start being cut.
Its history, however, is much more complicated. The amendment was one of 12 that were proposed by James Madison in 1789, 10 of which were ratified by the states in 1791 and became the Bill of Rights.
The congressional pay amendment was approved by Congress, but only mustered ratification from six states, far short of the 11 needed for it to be adopted. (There were 14 states at the time, and amendments must be ratified by three-fourths of the states.) Ohio later ratified it in the 19th Century, and Wyoming did the same in the early 1970s, but the amendment was stalled.
All that changed in 1982 when a University of Texas student named Gregory Watson wrote a paper on the congressional pay amendment, arguing that it could still be ratified, even though nearly 200 years had passed. He received a C on the assignment, but decided to prove his teacher wrong by actually getting the measure ratified.
He convinced the Maine Legislature to ratify it in 1983, and Colorado did the same the next year. In 1985, five more states – including Arizona – also ratified it, and the momentum continued. By 1992, it had been ratified by 38 states, the number needed to hit the three-fourths mark. The Archivist of the United States declared the amendment to be legally ratified, and, on May 20, 1992, Congress declared the ratification to be legal and the amendment to be part of the Constitution.
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