1789 proposal may yet haunt Congress Amendment would block late-night pay raises.

May 07, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- It's taken 202 years, but James Madison, the fourth president and one of America's revered founding fathers, is about to make life miserable for Congress.

An amendment he proposed in 1789 to curb Congress' penchant for granting itself midnight pay raises is likely to be ratified this week by enough states to become part of the Constitution.

If the amendment is ratified, members would have to stand for re-election before they could collect the raises they vote themselves.

Michigan and New Jersey lawmakers are meeting today in a race to become the 38th state that puts the issue over the top.

Maryland became the first state to ratify the amendment -- in December 1789.

After that, the matter could rest in the hands of a little-known federal bureaucrat, Don W. Wilson, the national archivist. By law, he has the power to certify that three-fourths of the states ratified the proposal, making it the 27th Amendment to the Constitution.

On the surface, it all sounds simple.

Don't believe it.

Mr. Wilson, according to the Congressional Research Service, can either certify the amendment on his own or let Congress decide whether 202 years from start to finish is "timely" enough to warrant the amendment's adoption.

Congress has set time limits to ratify other amendments, but in this case there was none. And that allowed the issue to gain new momentum in recent years as congressional pay kept going up.

The question of whether 202 years is too long could give Congress a way out.

Congress has soundly rejected every previous effort to adopt Madison's proposal by enacting a law. Members aren't eager to put obstacles in the way of their raises, and they certainly don't want the raises to become a big issue in re-election campaigns.

So Mr. Wilson is about to be handed a political grenade.

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