That took a while.
Fitting, then, that the most recent Amendment to our Constitution has the distinction of having taken the longest to ratify. First submitted in 1789, it did not become law until over 200 years later. Here’s the text:
No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.
It basically says that if members of Congress vote themselves a pay raise, this change cannot take effect until a next set of Representatives have been elected. As a guard against corruption, this makes sense. Initially proposed with twelve other Amendments (ten of which became what we know today as the Bill of Rights), this one never made it to the requisite three-quarters approval by the States during the founding era.
When the Amendment was finally picked up again in earnest by the legislatures, it came to pass in relatively short order: only about a decade. So it was that in the final year of the George H. W. Bush administration an Amendment was ratified that was initially proposed during the first months of George Washington’s tenure.
The Twenty-seventh Amendment itself is fairly boilerplate, but it makes good sense in a country that seeks to avoid corruption. What is more interesting about it for me is the extended length of time it took for passage. Think about it: all of the other Amendments I have discussed in this series were considered, voted upon, and passed in the time this one waited to become law. The overwhelming bulk of American history took place while it simply waited in the wings. All sorts of things: the XYZ Affair, the Age of Jackson, the Mexican War, the Battle of Gettysburg, the Wright Brothers, Pearl Harbor, Lee Harvey Oswald, the rise and fall of the Cold War, and so much more. It may be a “bookend” to Constitutional Amendments, but what a history it bookends.
In addition to the curiosity of its existence, the Amendment also testifies to the potential for such changes (like the twenty-seven we’ve considered here) to be rather slow and deliberate. For some, this stands as continued evidence to the inefficacy of government. For others–and I’ll confess I am in this camp–it reminds us that the initial writers of the Constitution wanted to set a high bar for potential changes. As the operating system of our national government, the Constitution is essential. Its initial construction and passage took place in the midst of debate and travail, and its value was deemed such that it should not be changed unless it absolutely needed to be. By setting such a lofty threshold for these alterations, the Founders provided some protection, then, that only the most essential and/or common-sense changes might be made. Temporary winds of passion, demagogic grandstanding, or passing fads ought not apply.
Lastly, the passage of this Amendment over twenty years ago reminds us that there haven’t been any Constitutional changes since. Coming as it did just before the Clinton administration and the polarization of politics that followed–helped by talk radio, new media, and more–one wonders if this was the last change of its kind…at least for now. Barring one of those “common-sense” Amendments that might come along, it is difficult to imagine so much of America agreeing on one thing. In other words, the more the proposed change is of any real substance or philosophical heft, the less likely I suspect it will be to gain passage.
We shall see what the future holds, and whether or not our nation will be able to address Constitutional needs as they arise under the current system or whether they will have the drive, fortitude, and cooperation to make any changes required.
And so the continuing saga of American history soldiers on. Whatever happens, I promise I’ll reopen the series if the time comes.