When Congress recently flirted with a big pay raise for its members only to be forced into retreat by an angry public backlash, the episode produced a potentially beneficial side-effect.

At least the lawmakers' awkward performance unintentionally breathed new life into a sensible pay reform that has been kicking around for nearly 200 years.We're referring to the proposed constitutional amendment that would prevent new raises for the lawmakers from taking effect until after the next congressional election.

That way, the lawmakers' constituents would have a chance to go to the voting booth and register their reaction to future raises.

Introduced by founding father James Madison in 1789, the proposed amendment initially did little except gather dust. By 1978, only seven states had ratified it. Then Congress started getting some sizable pay raises in 1982 and 1987 - and the amendment started gathering momentum.

As it stands now, the amendment - which has no deadline for ratification - has been approved by 26 states, most recently by Iowa only last week. Ratification by a total of 38 states is needed for the amendment to take effect.

By the end of the year, Newhouse News Service reports, the amendment is expected to come before the legislatures of all the 24 states that have not yet ratified it.

The public is clearly outraged over the present arrangement by which Congress can get a raise without ever voting on it. It probably would be better to accomplish proposed reform - making lawmakers wait until after the next election before receiving a pay raise - by law instead of imbedding the requirement in the Constitution. Indeed, bills along those lines already are pending in the House of Representatives. But the bills are given little chance of passage by a Congress still feeling its wounds from the recent pay raise battle.

So be it. If this nation's lawmakers won't act, then legislatures around the country should take the initiative out of Congress' hands and adopt James Madison's perceptive amendment.