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Constitutional Clamp On Congress's Pay

IN 1789, the first Congress sent 12 amendments to the states for ratification. Ten of these were promptly ratified by the necessary three-quarters of the states and became the Bill of Rights. Two others were left for later ratification. Since no time limit was specified, these two amendments are still pending.

The original Second Amendment reads: "No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives shall take effect, until an election of the Representatives shall have intervened."

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Of the 38 states now required to ratify an amendment, 35 states have ratified the original Second Amendment - 27 since 1983. Most of these states have a similar pay-hike limitation in their state constitutions. (The other unratified original amendment, regarding apportionment, has been approved by just 10 states since 1789.)

Last August Congressman John Boehner (R) of Ohio introduced a resolution calling on the 15 remaining states to ratify this amendment. He gathered as original cosponsors 34 members who are rapidly becoming the leaders of a new reform movement. Conspicuous by their absence as cosponsors are any of the old guard: Even those who came to Congress years ago as reformers are not supporting Representative Boehner.

Quite the contrary. In the past two years, the old guard has given themselves a 47 percent pay raise, taking an additional $20 million each year from taxpayers. They also hiked their pensions by 47 percent, expanding the burden to future taxpayers.

IN January of this year, the members of Congress were at it again, giving themselves a cost-of-living hike of $2.4 million. Members managed to accomplish this in virtual secrecy, without even having a vote, much less a recorded vote.

The public is unaware of this latest pay raise - and also that similar secret cost-of-living raises will take effect automatically from now on. While the rest of society is struggling with cutbacks, layoffs, and an increasingly uncertain future, members of Congress offer the taxpayers who support them a few crumbs in the form of a $400 tax cut - for a family of four. Considering their $2.4 million and $20 million raises, their $400 billion budget deficit, their 20,000 kited checks, their $647,000 of unpa id lunch bills, the abuse of campaign funds, not to mention the $500 billion bill for the S&L debacle, the opportunity for reform may not be as great as the need for more revolutionary action - such as term limits.

At least eight states are working on bills to ratify the original Second Amendment, which would become the 27th Amendment. Already this year, Pennsylvania's House approved the amendment 198-to-0 and sent it to the Senate. The Senates of Alabama and Missouri have also ratified it. In California's legislature, Sen. Quentin Kopp's bill, SJR1, has passed the Senate, but is bottled up in the House Committee on Rules. Kentucky, Michigan, Nebraska, and Illinois all are working on ratification. The necessary thr ee states are likely to be found this spring.

When the 38th state ratifies this amendment, an interesting question will arise: Is a ratification process that has extended over 200 years still valid? The Constitution requires that each ratification process must be "sufficiently contemporaneous." While Congress will no doubt want the Supreme Court to kill the amendment, it is unlikely to reverse its 1939 decision that "contemporaneous" is not a legal matter for the courts, but a political one for Congress. Members will then face a tough decision: expo se their greed or accept one small responsibility of their office - voting publicly, not secretly, on pay raises.

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While state legislatures are naturally and properly reluctant to meddle in the affairs of the national legislature, the abuses of Congress must be stopped and some semblance of accountability be restored. Though members of Congress have put themselves virtually above the law and beyond any serious reelection challenge, there are still some checks and balances that can - and should - apply. This is one.

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