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Shameless Self-Promotion

October 15, 2012 1 comment

No new post today from Santa Fe (though there is lots a-cookin’; maybe more on that later). Just wanted to plug a blog post I wrote for Bloomberg View, the op-ed section of the Bloomberg media empire. If you are a fan of history or trains, you might enjoy it.

Amtrak Chugs Along Despite Decades of Political Battles

Thanks for reading the post and the History Nerd.

I Got Dem Ol’ Ballot-Tallying Blues Again, Mama

August 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Was it really only twelve years ago this November when the eyes of the world were focused on one state, when just a few hundred votes separated the two men vying to be the leader of the free world? I remember it so vividly, the drama, the political machinations and partisanship, the sense that Election Day snafus or faulty tabulation had denied the true intent of the voters in that crucial state.

I am, of course, talking about my new home, the great state of New Mexico.

Damn these punch cards…

What’s that you say? Didn’t another state dominate the news in the weeks after the 2000 election? Hmm, I suppose Florida was the focal point of all the post-election hijinks. But New Mexico actually had a closer vote tally: Gore won there by less than 400 votes, while Bush took Florida—theoretically—by 537. Of course, a few million more votes were cast there, and Florida’s 25 electoral votes were a wee bit more important in deciding the election than New Mexico’s measly five. Still, for a time, the unsettled results in both New Mexico and Oregon were mentioned in the same breath as Florida’s disputed outcome, and it wasn’t until December that the Bush team publicly announced it would not seek a statewide recount in NM (something, of course, it fought tooth and nail in Florida; hell, Bush didn’t even want the manual recount in four counties).

Still gotta wonder how things might have been under President Gore…

Why is the 2000 election debacle on my brain? Probably because I just finished a book on it–for a client who informed me this week it is ceasing publication of all books, this one will most likely never see the light of day, and my getting my second payment for it is not a done deal. Given all that, I might be tempted to post the whole thing online, because I think it was a pretty good book, if I say so myself.

And because, as much as Antonin “Funny Man” Scalia exhorts us all to “get over it” (it being specifically the SCOTUS decision that ended the recount and left legal scholars from all over the political spectrum gape-mouthed), immersing myself in the details of what went on in the 36 days after Election Day (and various vote-stifling efforts before and during it) leaves no doubt that if voter intent were truly discerned, as Florida’s law calls for, Gore won Florida and the election.

I know, I know, the usually mild-mannered History Nerd is opening up a can of really big and disgusting worms here; let me say right off the bat that I’m not going to engage in any online debates with people who disagree. It’s an opinion, though one based on a lot of reading of what went down. And as one lawyer (a pro-Gore lawyer) said in 2002, “There is no neutral view…of Bush v. Gore.” Hell, even Sandra Day O’Connor, who was in the 5-4 Republican majority that halted the recount, said she wasn’t sure if they made the right decision.

But John Paul Stevens, a dissenter, was completely sure of this: The Court never should have issued a stay of the recount in the first place and heard Bush v. Gore. “There just obviously wasn’t any irreparable injury to allowing a recount to go through because the worst that happens is you get a more accurate count of the votes.”

Yup, just your typical spontaneous protest of disgruntled local voters…

Reading about all the legal maneuvering that went on after November 7, rediscovering the nuances of hanging and dimpled chads and the flawed butterfly ballot, learning for the first time about the Brooks Brothers riot and the steps Bush was taking even before the election to sway public opinion if things didn’t go his way—it set my mind a-spinnin’.

But perhaps even worse was realizing that even after states got rid of error-prone voting machines (though in some cases replaced them with machines susceptible to hacking and that left no paper trail) and Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (which some Republicans are now trying to hamstring by defunding the Election Assistance Commission the law created), the election process in this country is AFU.

Adding to the problem: The two parties have diametrically opposing views (quelle surprise!) about voting. Republicans, in the face of almost non-existent fraud, want to make it harder for people to register and vote, which several studies have shown will potentially drive down the votes of certain constituencies that tend to vote Democratic. Democrats believe everyone who is legally eligible to vote should be able to, with of course some safeguards to prevent fraud (voter ID–good; government-issued photo  IDs–not so much). Yes, yes, I’m partisan, but which one sounds like the definition of “participatory democracy” most people would prefer?

We know that the 2000 election was followed by another fairly close contest, with Ohio being the deciding state. The popular-vote contest there was not a nail-biter, though more than one person thought some shenanigans (deliberately creating long lines at polling places in poor, urban, traditionally Democratic areas; possible rigging of machines) helped give Bush that large margin. And once again, though under the radar, New Mexico seemed to have some voting irregularities of its own (and compared to Ohio, its vote was fairly close: Bush won by about 6,000 votes). A study conducted by Help America Recount.org showed that the state had a high percentage of presidential undervotes (no vote recorded) on a certain type of voting machine. Some areas also had high tallies of “phantom votes,” meaning more votes recorded than ballots cast.

By 2008, New Mexico had passed a law that required an automatic recount in close elections, though the issue was moot that year, as Obama swamped McCain in the state. In general, Obama’s comfortable margin across the country didn’t raise the specter of 2000 and 2004. But what will happen this year? Could another close election be decided by court battles and inaccurate counting of votes? Sadly, yes. We’ve already seen Florida trying another voter purge that has raised questions, as the one in 1999-2000 did. We have tough voter ID laws in place that will suppress some Democratic votes. And most damaging of all to the voting process, we have too many partisan officials, from secretaries of state to county canvassing board members, overseeing elections and the counting of votes. Whichever party you belong to, how good would you feel about a partisan from the opposing party deciding the outcome of a tight election?

The 2000 presidential race showed that the idea of one person, one vote—and then having that vote counted properly—is an ideal not being practiced. And that’s one reason why we shouldn’t just “get over” the results of Bush v. Gore and the Florida recount.

Courageous Writing?

June 24, 2012 Leave a comment

A first edition sells today for hundreds of dollars, in case you were thinking of adding it to your library.

As I mentioned previously, I’ve been immersed of late in a biography of John Kennedy, which has renewed my interest in the biographer’s craft (which, not coincidentally, is the name of the monthly newsletter I’m now editing; you can see a sample of an old issue here). I was particularly struck about all the scholarly ink spelled over who exactly wrote JFK’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, which took the 1957 award in the biography/ autobiography category. I suppose professional historians take an interest in this kind of thing because, you know, they do their own research and writing and like to see others in their field rewarded for the same.

So here’s what the latest scholarship seems to suggest (at least as outlined by Robert Dallek in his An Unfinished Life): Kennedy relied on the research and first drafts of others (primarily Ted Sorensen) but wrote the final draft. Dallek sums it up this way: “Jack did more on the book than some later critics believe, but less than the term author normally connotes.”

Hmm. But only JFK’s name is listed on that prize, yes, not the “committee” Dallek says did the work.

What one of those babies looks like, because God knows I will never see a Pulitzer in the flesh…

Both Dallek and Sally Bedell Smith note that Joseph Kennedy’s journalist friend, New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, lobbied Pulitzer voters to make sure JFK got the prize. (Krock had previously helped turn Kennedy’s senior thesis from Harvard into the well-received book, Why England Slept.) Dallek says the voting committee had five books above Kennedy’s during their deliberations; Smith specifically mentions books on FDR and jurist Harlan Stone as biographies that were originally deemed more worthy. Yet Kennedy got the prize and increased prominence. The book and its success stirred this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, who was not very impressed with Kennedy’s liberal credentials (though to be fair, JFK never considered himself a liberal). To the former First Lady, the Senate’s rising star would have been more impressive if he had “a little less profile and a little more courage.”

I don’t know what other books were in the running for that Pulitzer in ’57. The Pulitzer website does not list the finalists that far back. But you can get an idea of some of the competition for that year by checking out the finalists for the National Book Award (NBA) in history. The biographies included what I assume is the same FDR bio that Smith mentions, James MacGregor Burns’s Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. (Burns went on to write a glowing pre-presidential campaign profile of Kennedy in 1959). Or it could have been another FDR bio, Frank Freidel’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Triumph. Also on the list: Old Bullion Benton, a study of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and Samuel Flagg Bemis’s John Quincy Adams and the Union, the second part of a two-volume biography by one of the most respected historian of the first half of the 20th century. (Interestingly, Benton and Adams make up one-quarter of Kennedy’s profiles.) Another finalist that year was Richard III, by Paul Murray Kendall; several sources say Kendall’s book was the runner-up for the NBA.

So, Kennedy had some stiff competition for his Pulitzer. Authorship aside, did he deserve it? I can’t answer that, but his experience could be another example of the importance of having friends in high places. After his lobbying efforts, Krock said in an interview, “I worked as hard as I could to get him that prize.” It would be flip for me to say, “Perhaps harder than Kennedy did in marshaling the work of his committee.”

Oops.

But it does seem fair to say that Kennedy never felt any remorse about how the book was written or how it won the prize. Not like Krock later did. After explaining his hard work for Kennedy, the journalist added: “Those are the facts. I don’t take any pride in them.”

Thoughts of Persia

April 18, 2012 2 comments

Mitt Romney has a history problem. I’m not talking about his personal history; his public persona suggests his worst infraction was sneaking a sip out of a bottle of Coke behind the family’s sprawling Bloomfield Hills home. No, I mean he has a problem getting the facts of history right, as an op-ed piece he wrote to rattle his saber at Iran shows. The thrust of the piece was to paint Barack Obama as weak in the face of Iran’s rising nuclear threat, and he would be different, by gum. He started the piece by referring back to the release of the U.S. hostages on January 20, 1981, just minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.

The hostages, back on U.S. soil, after more than a year in Iranian custody.

To Romney, the release was Iran’s acknowledgment that they faced some tough times under Reagan’s watch if the hostages weren’t freed (not, as is widely accepted, because months of negotiations and internal Iranian concerns led Ayatollah Khomeini to agree to their release). Yup, why Reagan was so tough on the Iranians, he secretly sold them weapons, in violation of U.S. law and his own promise never to deal with terrorists. Yeah, Romney pines for the good ol’ days, under Sheriff Ronnie. You probably won’t hear too much from Romney on the Iran-contra scandal…

Attending Phyllis Bennis’s recent talk about U.S.-Iranian relations got me thinking about the shared history of those two countries. The recent past, with the hostages and ever-tense relations often inflamed by bellicose rhetoric, has not been pretty. But the History Nerd wondered: Was it always thus?

Our man in Tabriz…

Depends on who you ask, I guess. Justin Perkins recounted receiving some good treatment at the hands of the Muslim government of Persia, circa 1835. Perkins was the first American missionary to live in what we now call Iran, arriving there in 1834 with his wife. His mission was to work with the Nestorians, a Christian sect that traced its roots back to a 5th-century dispute over the teachings of Nestorius. The Persian Nestorians lived in and near the mountains of Kurdistan. Perkins not only had to deal with a foreign culture as he spread Congregationalist teachings and general learning. He also confronted religious obstacles in the form of local superstitions and “papal errors” that had crept into Nestorianism, the latter courtesy of missionaries sent from Rome. Perkins’s son recounts these years in Persia in the biography he wrote of his father, noting that even though the Nestorians were surrounded by “the gross darkness of Mohammedanism,” the land’s Muslim rulers treated the elder Perkins well.  One member of the ruling family ordered that Perkins and his associate have army protection, as thanks for their “attending to the education of the people, and render[ing] the people useful by teaching them European science.”

Learn more about those ancient Persian empires in a book by yours truly.

The Americans and Iranians first established official diplomatic relations during the 1880s. (An earlier trade treaty had been negotiated but never put into effect.) By this time, Persia was still an independent nation, but a shell of the great empire it had once been. Actually, three separate empires had risen and crumbled in the region, starting with the Achaemenid dynasty of the 6th century BCE. By the 19th century, however, Persia had become another battleground in the “Great Game” between Russia and Great Britain for dominance in Central Asia. The glory of Cyrus and Darius and Mithridates and, yes, even  Khosrow I, was long past.

That point was forcefully driven home in 1919, when the Anglo-Persian Agreement gave the British virtual control of Iran. The people, as U.S. State Department correspondence indicates, were incensed by their government’s capitulation, but feared demonstrating against it because of the presence of British troops. One report said that Iran’s intelligentsia realized some foreign influence was inevitable, and “they would have welcomed such on the part of the United States.” Persians hoped for some sort of American remedy, and some were disappointed when it never came. The rising tide of nationalism, though, led to the takeover of the government in 1921 by the first Pahlavi shah, the father of the infamous shah who would be one of the greatest U.S. allies in the region—and a player in the later hostage crisis.

U.S. troops prepare to move supplies along the Persian Corridor.

By this time, a discovery beneath Persian soils set the groundwork for those deepening U.S.-Iranian ties. The country had oil, lots of it. And as we all know, America would eventually need some of that oil, and a general balance of power in the region that favored its interests. But Americans did not arrive in any force in Iran until World War II. Fearing a German takeover of the country (the first shah had established close ties to Germany), the Soviet Union and Great Britain invaded Iran in 1941. A small number of U.S. troops and civilians arrived to help move supplies through Iran–the so-called Persian Corridor–to Russia and keep oil flowing to the Allies. The Americans built roads and operated plants that made vehicles and aircraft for the Soviets. Thousands of Iranian civilians also took part in these efforts.

At the end of the war the Soviet Union was not happy, because it didn’t have the oil interests that the Brits and Americans had secured during the war. Joseph Stalin tried to reassert old Russian influence over northern Iran, supporting rebels there. He ended that support in April 1946, and Iranian troops, working with a U.S. military adviser, crushed the rebellion. The Soviets were out of what was a historical sphere of influence for them, and we were in. But U.S. leaders would continue to fear Communist influence in Iran and do whatever they had to do to keep a friendly regime in power there.

Those steps included using the CIA to overthrow a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 and putting the second Pahlavi shah onto the Peacock Throne. This part of the story is more familiar, so I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say, said shah used petrodollars and cozy U.S. relations to build a brutal dictatorship, which led to the revolution of 1978 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Which begat the hostage crisis and 30-plus years of tensions and talks of going to war with an Iran that supposedly covets nukes, to intimidate Israel and no doubt tweak the Americans yet again.

To the Iranians, Iranian-American professor Vali Nasr claims, 1953 was a motivating factor in the future animosity between Iran and the United States. The U.S.-inspired coup was a “humiliation,” one that was “exorcised by the taking of the American hostages in 1979.” The Iranian nationalism that first emerged during the 1920s had been stoked anew, and remains today, even if many Iranians oppose the new authoritarian regime that replaced the old one (“Meet the new boss…”).

What do the Iranians think of the tough talk from a Romney or other Americans? Efraim Halevy, a  former head of Israeli intelligence, said that Romney’s op-ed piece could fuel Iran’s desire to quickly do more work on a weapon, before Romney—conceivably—wins the election. But Iran’s real concern was not building a bomb, Halevy asserted, but preserving its regime, as economic sanctions begin to take effect. Whatever happens, our relations with Iran will remain complex–perhaps a little too much so for the historically challenged Romney.

Unknown Moments

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Coal miners battling for their rights in West Virginia. Scandal tainting the national pastime. Piranhas on the loose. All not-so-stellar moments in our country’s history, but ones presented to a vaster audience than most history books reach, thanks to the pen and camera of filmmaker John Sayles.

(OK, the last bit is not part of our history, but Sayles did write the script for Piranha in his days working as a hired gun for B-film producer extraordinaire, Roger Corman.)

The author and filmmaker

Sayles is also a novelist, and he was in town last night to discuss his latest book, the historical novel A Moment in the Sun. I haven’t read it, but I know the near-1,000 page tome covers, as usual, parts of our history most American don’t know about—and that some flag-waving types would probably prefer we all ignore. Why dwell on the details of stomping out foreign freedom fighters or denying blacks their rights, when we are at heart God’s chosen country?

Yeah.

The decidedly leftist Sayles does want to dwell on the details, as he writes about the only insurrection in U.S. history, led by white supremacists against the duly elected black officials of Wilmington, NC. And as he takes a look at the bloody—some might say ruthless and/or barbaric—squashing of a rebellion in the Philippines, as locals who had successfully battled Spain for independence had a tougher time against the Yanks. Both events took place in 1898 (though the Filipino insurrection stretched on for several years), in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war.

The new(ish) book

Sayler read a chapter (a whole freakin’ chapter; it was the longest reading by an author that I’ve ever attended…) which describes the life of a NYC “newsie” trying to sell papers announcing the start of that war. Newspapers, or one in particular—William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal—is often cited as the fanner of flames to get America into the war, after the mysterious explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. (Modern consensus—it was an accident, not some deliberate attack by Spanish forces, which then controlled Cuba.) And the refrain through the chapter was “War!” shouted out by our streetwise hero and the other kids trying to make a buck hawking papers.

I’m not an expert on the era, but I did notice one historical inaccuracy in the chapter: The narrator talks of the newsie putting one of his hard-earned pennies, a “Lincoln,” into a Mutoscope, an early motion-picture machine. Only problem is, the first Lincoln penny did not appear until 1909. Oops. But the chapter was filled with wonderful dialogue and a fine eye for historical detail—including the marked attention to ethnicity paid by the characters-from-many-backgrounds. We have, of course, transcended that today…

Emilio Aguinaldo--first pres of the Philippines, captured rebel leader

Afterward, Sayles and fellow author Francisco Goldman talked about the book, Sayles’s creative process, and a bit about his latest film, Amigo, which covers some of the same territory as the book. Sayles noted that he didn’t know about the war in the Philippines until his mid 30s—not a sign of his lack of intelligence, but of the general effort, deliberate or not, to whitewash that first major American intervention.

I dug out an old high-school textbook from the 1970s. Its references to the Filipino insurrection: one sentence about the Filipinos taking up arms “in open revolt against the United States” and another about the general news blackout regarding the “war to suppress Emilio Aguinaldo and his Filipino patriots.” And this from a book written by generally liberal—or at least mainstream—historians. In 2006, in a different kind of book, historian David Traxel wrote about the Progressive Era and the country’s role in World War I. Crusader Nation, its subtitle says, is about the “United States in Peace and the Great War, 1898-1920.” Which implies all was peaceful from the end of the Spanish-American War until 1914, but Sayles, and the tens of thousands of Filipinos killed by American guns, knew better. I found no mention of the insurrection in Crusader Nation.

But I found some telling quotes about the war, and America’s foray into imperialism, while writing a short historical play a few years back. It was called “Truth, Justice, And…” and it riffed on comments by-then president George W. Bush, suggesting that the horrors of Abu Ghraib (a bit before the even-worse horrors of Haditha), were an anomaly; violence, especially toward the innocent, is just not part of the American character. The play suggests otherwise, as do some of these quotes I found from some of the young American soldiers sent to battle the Filipinos:

“It was like hunting rabbits; an insurgent would jump out of a hole or the brush and run; he would not get very far…. I suppose you are not interested in the way we do the job. We do not take prisoners.”

“…legs and arms nearly demolished; total decapitation; horrible wounds in chests and abdomens, showing the determination of our soldiers to kill every native in sight. The Filipinos did stand their ground heroically, contesting every inch, but proved themselves unable to stand the deadly fire of our well-trained and eager boys in blue. I counted seventy-nine dead natives in one small field, and learn that on the other side of the river their bodies were stacked up for breastworks.”

“We burned hundreds of houses and looted hundreds more. Some of the boys made good hauls of jewelry and clothing.”

Some soldiers, though, then as now, were not altogether thrilled with their mission:

“They are fighting for a good cause, and the Americans should be the last of all nations to transgress upon such rights. Their independence is dearer to them than life, as ours was in years gone by, and is today. They should have their independence…”

(You can find these and other quotes here.)

Sayles said that much of our present position—I assume he means as an intervening nation—started with the war in the Philippines. It certainly made us an imperial power, which is what some American leaders wanted. Other voices, however, did speak out against taking on the “white men’s burden”; Mark Twain comes to mind. But then as now, the forces that speak for fighting wars when we have not been attacked always seem to get more play than those that oppose killing foreigners for exaggerated claims of “national security.” The Filipinos certainly learned that, even if most Americans–still–don’t.

Happy–Mostly–Anniversaries

January 6, 2012 Leave a comment

In these parts, no one has put away the party hats and noisemakers with the passing of New Year’s Day. No, we have a centennial to celebrate here in New Mexico: 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of that famous dance, the kangaroo dip.

A map of the territory of New Mexico, 1873

Oh, I’m joking, of course. No one knows for sure when that hot-footed step and its bestiary cousins, the camel walk, the crab step, and the bunny hug, were first introduced, though Gordon Carruth, in his What Happened When, says 1912 was about the time when the still-popular ragtime craze inspired these steps. No, what we New Mexicans are about to start celebrating on January 6 is the inclusion of our fair state in the Union. It only took some 60 years after the Kearny invasion (described a bit here), which is rocket-like speed, really, when you consider Californians had to wait, uh, about two years. And Missourians sat on their hands some 18 years after the Louisiana Purchase before they—wait a minute. Two years? 18? And New Mexicans had to wait more than half a century? What gives?

Well, racism, partly. And religious prejudice. Because to the conquering Anglo mind, how could Spanish-speaking Catholics and various Native Americans be trusted with the delicacies of democracy? One Eastern visitor during the 1850s berated the New Mexicans as “lazy and indolent.” The Civil War hero William T. Sherman said the United States should go to war with Mexico again—to make it take back New Mexico.

And when talk of statehood came up during the 1880s, members of Congress who opposed it noted that the New Mexicans themselves were not exactly clamoring for a change in their status: “No agitation of the question in late years has been noticeable. “ (You can read more on this here.) In 1889, when the residents had a chance to approve a constitution—a prerequisite for statehood—they voted it down. The Santa Fe New Mexican (still published) noted that many residents feared their taxes would increase if they joined the Union. Good guess.

Uh oh...

TR on the stump, 1912

I’m sure every two-bit historian in the Land of Enchantment (including, of course, the History Nerd), will be trotting out various state centennial stories in the months to come. But I wanted to highlight some of the other events of 1912 that are worthy of exploration during this 100th-anniversary year, some of which I hope to delve into here:

  • The one you are apt to hear about most: the sinking of the Titanic. I’ve written about it twice for kids and will certainly be able to dredge up a few interesting tidbits: the alleged ghost stories, the myths, the heroics.
  • And Big Centennial Event number two, especially if a third-party candidate runs in November, is the presidential race between Teddy “Bull Moose” Roosevelt, William Howard “I Did Not Get Stuck In a Bath Tub (but I did order a larger one for the White House)” Taft,  and Woodrow “Prig and Racist” Wilson. It is, as far as I can tell, the only time a current, ex, and future president squared off in a three-way race. And amazing to consider when today’s Republicans fall over each other to display their conservative bona fides, two of them were liberal GOPers at heart, back when that concept was not an oxymoron.
  • The passage of key federal labor laws, including one that gave workers under federal contract an 8-hour work day.
  • The violent “Bread and Roses” Lawrence, MA, textile strike, which featured immigrant workers and the Wobblies—you know, back when workers were actually ready to fight for their rights.
  • The rise of Jim Thorpe as an American sports hero—and the subsequent black cloud that smothered his reputation.
  • And perhaps most important to me, the Boston Red Sox’s victory in the World Series (something I seriously doubt will happen in 2012…).

I’m sure other noteworthy centennials will pop up as the year goes on. Stay tuned to the History Nerd for all the excitement.

The Newest Old Amendment

March 4, 2010 5 comments

When was the last time you thought about the 27th Amendment?

Umm, maybe never?

You know, it was the last one ratified, back in 1992. It deals with….hmm. What does it deal with again? I know it didn’t repeal Prohibition, because I was drinking legally way before 1992. Quartering troops? No, no, that’s one of the early ones; Third, maybe? Ah, I know, it’s the Equal Rights Amend–oops. Well, that would have been the 27th, if enough states had ratified it in time.

I didn't hear a harrumph out of you...

OK, so here is the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, confirmed by Congress on May 20, 1992, just two weeks or so after Michigan became the requisite 38th state to ratify it:

“No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”

So maybe not as sexy, say, as the ones about not abridging free speech or having a speedy and public trial or giving women the right to vote. But there it is, the law of the land. And why, you may ask, does the History Nerd care? Because he was challenged in a class the other night to explore the roots of this amendment, and he never (well…) backs away from a historical challenge.

Short on height, but long on the legal smarts

Our newest amendment actually has a long pedigree, something that poked at me with unsure familiarity when the challenge first arose. Long indeed: It was one of the original proposed amendments penned by James Madison in 1789. He introduce nine to the House; the representatives eventually sent 17 to the Senate. The two bodies then whittled that down to the 12 that  were sent to the states for ratification. The states accepted ten, the amendments to the Constitution that we know today as the Bill of Rights.

Why did Madison want an amendment governing Congressional pay raises? He knew people didn’t always trust their lawmakers (surprise!). And some lawmakers once in awhile try to benefit from their position (surprise  again!). Madison believed lawmakers shouldn’t be able to vote themselves a raise, unless they faced reelection before they actually got the cash. The election would allow voters, in effect, to give a thumbs up-or-down on the raise. Or at least if their particular lawmaker got to benefit from it.

A handy-dandy document, when not flouted by certain presidents and lawmakers...

The amendment won some support in the states. Six of the thirteen voted to ratify, but that fell short of the nine needed to put it in the Constitution. So, the ratified amendments took effect, and Madison‘s Amendment, as it’s now called just sat…wherever it is failed amendments go. But all hope was not lost,  because the Congress of 1789 did not put a time limit on the ratification process for the first proposed amendments (unlike today).

Decades passed, and Ohio ratified it. Meanwhile, the country continued to grow, meaning the number of states needed to pass the amendment  grew too. By 1959, with the admission of Alaska and Hawaii, Madison‘s Amendment needed approval from 31 more states. A pretty daunting figure for an admittedly obscure amendment. But then something happened.

People began to get really pissed at their members of Congress. And the raises they sometimes voted themselves. A retroactive pay raise spurred Wyoming in 1978 to ratify the amendment. Then, during the 1980s, a college student researching it began his own Constitutional crusade, to get the amendment ratified once and for all. (See a real legal authority’s take on this here.) Ralph Nader came on board too, and as the effort steamrolled, a 1989 Washington Post article spurred the final push. And so the 27th Amendment came to grace our Constitution.

Has the amendment impacted the lives of most Americans? I think we know the answer. The judicial system is not exactly flooded with cases relating to it. My quick research found just one U.S. Supreme Court issuance that referenced it: a dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer (joined by Scalia and Kennedy) on a denial of certiorari in Williams v. United States (535 U.S. 911 [1992], for all you legal geeks).

You, you mean, I lost?

But I did find a more substantive U.S. Court of Appeals case that dealt with it, Boehner v. Anderson (30 F. 3d 156, 308 U.S. App. D.C. 94  [1994], and yes, the same House Minority Leader John Boehner now often seen on the news saying all those constructive things about our president). Read more at your leisure, but the gist was that a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for Congress did not violate the amendment because the increase went into effect after an election. Boehner also argued that if that COLA law were constitutional, then a later elimination of the COLA violated the amendment because no election took place between the passing of the later law and the varying (lowering) of his pay. The court punted on that one and did not rule. The whole thing confuses me: Boehner says Congress couldn’t raise his pay with a COLA, but couldn’t take away the most recent COLA either? The court’s decision notes the “seemingly contradictory factual claims of injury.” Whew. I thought it was  just me. No, not surprisingly, it was Boehner.

At least one legal scholar (John Dean, in the article I linked to above), says Congress has routinely ignored the 27th Amendment since its certification. COLAs taken since 1997 have violated its provisions, but no one has ever been given standing to challenge Congress on this. (As of Dean’s admittedly old article; but at the least, any challenge has not gotten to the SCOTUS or stopped the COLAs. In 2009. however, Rep. Dan Burton, R-IN, introduced one of several bills to ax the COLA; all seemed to have died in committee.)  The courts have been sticking with the argument that the original law calling for COLAs was passed in accordance with the amendment, so everything’s kosher (read more about the whole thing here).

So, there you have it – challenge met with a quick history of the 27th Amendment. Makes fascinating reading, doesn’t it? You‘re welcome.