It Took Awhile, and May Take Longer

The air is filled these days with angry accusations that American government no longer works. Now comes a case suggesting otherwise: that the system works, but so slowly that nobody lives long enough to notice.

In 1789, James Madison worried about the "seeming indecorum" of a Constitution that allowed Congress to give itself instant salary increases. His plan was to amend the Constitution to delay the effective date of any salary increase until after a subsequent Congress had been sworn in.

Congress approved the plan and submitted it to the states, then numbering 14. By the end of the 18th Century, only six states had ratified; it takes three-fourths to effect a change in the Constitution. In all of the 19th Century, only one other state endorsed the pay raise amendment.

In the 1970s an Ohio Republican revived the proposed amendment to ban mid-term pay increases, and on Thursday Michigan's Legislature voted its approval, pushing the number of ratifying states over the required three-fourth.

It had taken just a few weeks short of 203 years to work things out, with most of the endorsements coming in recent years, after Congress fell into deep disfavor with the American public.

But that is not the end of it. Nobody seems to know, for example, whether ratifications spread over more than two centuries have any legal effect. The Supreme Court may have to decide, and nobody knows how long that might take. But as they say in Washington, it is better to take a little time and get things right than do shoddy work. Right? Right.

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