Back in 1982 a student at the University of Texas, researching the federal constitution for a term paper, stumbled onto a constitutional amendment proposed by the Congress in 1789, but never ratified by the states.
There was no deadline for ratification in the proposal, so Gregory Watson wrote his paper arguing that the amendment could still be ratified.
He got a “C.”
The professor thought it was just ridiculous to suppose that a proposal that was advanced by Congress 193 years before was still active.
To prove his point, he started writing letters to the state legislatures. Within a year, Maine ratified the amendment, then Colorado. In 1992 Alabama became the 38th state to ratify and the 27th Amendment was born.
The Professor still refused to change Watson’s grade.
Here’s what the 27th Amendment to the United States Constitution says:
No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.
In short, it prevents members of Congress from feathering their own nests; giving themselves a pay increase. They have to go back to the voters and get reelected before their paychecks are sweetened.
At least that is what everybody who worked to get the 27th amendment ratified believed.
But you gotta hand it to those Congressmen. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. They had plenty of will, so they came up with a clever way. They adopted COLA for themselves. COLA; that’s short for Cost Of Living Adjustment. Just like the unions.
Talk about clever. They included their COLA in a law they called The Ethics Reform Act of 1989. They could see the ratification of the 27th Amendment coming.
Apparently, they thought the ethical thing to do was to hurry up and give themselves an automatic annual raise before the 27th Amendment became the law of the land.
Oh, and by the way, the computation of their COLA included the provision that the annual adjustment could never be less than zero. Up every year, but never down.
To his credit, Gregory Watson didn’t give up. He and a few others brought an action in federal court to challenge the congressional COLA as a violation of the new 27th Amendment.
A federal District Court Judge in Colorado decided that the COLA, having been adopted before the amendment, was perfectly all right.
Watson and friends appealed to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court said they couldn’t take the case, because the plaintiffs didn’t have ‘standing’ to complain. The United States Supreme Court agreed, and refused to hear the case, too.
It’s a sad story. The general public was, and still is, overwhelmingly in favor of limiting the power of the politicians to increase their own compensation.
But what about COLA? Should their salaries by increased to reflect the cost of living?
Most Americans like COLA. They figure inflation isn’t their fault. They see their buying power going down, their savings shrinking in value, and they want to make more money to keep up.
But the first premise doesn’t apply to members of Congress. Inflation is their fault. The devaluation of currency is their fault. The cheapening of the dollar is the direct consequence of wild and irresponsible spending by the government in Washington.
I believe that the compensation of members of Congress should be spelled out in the Constitution. In dollars and cents. No adjustments. No power to give themselves or their successors a raise.
Why? Very simply because the Constitution of the United States gives the Congress the exclusive power to coin money. The power to coin money carries with it the responsibility to assure that the money which is coined is a stable and reliable medium of exchange.
Inflation is the most regressive form of taxation. It takes from the rich and poor alike. It impunes every contract. It invades every savings account.
How does it make sense to protect members of Congress from the inflation which they, themselves, have suffered to be visited upon their constituents?
If the compensation of members of Congress is fixed, their personal self interest will best be served by legislation which protects and even enhances the value of the dollar.
Fixing the compensation of members of Congress is an important first step in establishing a balanced budget and retiring the national debt.
And while we’re about it, we ought to close off another avenue of self aggrandizement. The House and Senate should be forbidden to pay extra money to the Speaker of the House, the President Pro Tem of the Senate, the majority and minority leaders of both houses and the chairmen or members of any committee.
It’s time to remind elected officials that they are public servants and not rulers.