When it comes to amendments in the Constitution, the 27th amendment, which deals with congressional pay, isn’t as well known as others. But the question of congressional pay raises—or cuts—has gotten a lot of attention recently.
The 27th amendment is our most recent amendment, ratified in 1992. It reads:
“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, a sitting Congress can’t change its pay while it is in session for two years. But it can give the next Congress a raise.
It’s not a new idea. The amendment was proposed back in 1789 by James Madison along with other amendments that became the Bill of Rights, but it took 203 years for it to become the law of the land.
Since then, the 27th Amendment had gotten very little publicity until the past few months, with support emerging on all sides—for congressional pay delays, cuts, or even raises.
In January, the issue of congressional pay became a sideshow as part of the debate over the federal government’s budget.
The House and Senate agreed to a debt-ceiling compromise embodied in the No Budget, No Pay Act of 2013. A key part of the legislation would delay pay to members of the House or Senate if they didn’t approve a budget by mid-April. (So technically, it would have been more accurately called the No Budget, Delayed Pay Act.)
Many scholars saw a conflict with the 27th Amendment, since even delaying pay counts as "varying the compensation." Congressional leaders were clearly aware of the concern; a section of the bill says the delayed-pay option prevents a "violation of the 27th article of Amendment to the Constitution."
The Senate passed its first proposed budget in four years in March; the House also passed a proposed budget.
The 27th Amendment also popped up in the debate over the sequester, the forced across-the-board federal spending cuts imposed after another congressional impasse.
Members of the House and Senate were immune to pay cuts and furloughs, unlike many other government workers, because such cuts would change their pay while Congress is in session—in violation of the 27th Amendment.
Several Congress members did agree to voluntarily return part of their pay to the Treasury Department in a show of support for sequestered workers.
In March, some House representatives introduced bills that would cut the pay of the next Congress by at least 8 percent, an amount equivalent to the cuts to other workers’ pay triggered by the sequester. In April, Don Barber, a U.S. House representative from Arizona, pushed for a 20 percent pay cut for Congress in its next term.
Despite Congress' low approval ratings, not everyone thinks Congress deserves a pay freeze or pay cut.
Congress hasn’t seen a pay hike since 2009. Its members are now paid $174,000 per year on average.
One person who endorsed a small pay raise for Congress was President Obama, who signed an executive order late last year that gave House and Senate members a 1 percent raise as part of hike for federal workers. Congress rejected the offer.
Dan Schuman, a policy counsel for the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, caused a bit of stir on Slate.com in an April opinion piece that advocated for large pay raises for Congress.
“Many very competent people no longer want the job,” he argued, pointing to the much higher salaries at lobby groups, as well as other countries that pay their public officials more.
If Congress had accepted a cost-of-living raise for the past four years, its average compensation would be $183,000 a year based on COLA estimates, or an 8 percent raise from 2008.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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