This week marks the 18th anniversary of the passage of the 27th amendment. This amendment, which prohibits any law “varying the compensation” of congressmen from taking effect until a congressional election has “intervened,” is a modest one.
It lacks the lofty language and broad familiarity of the first amendment which protects, among other things, the freedom of speech, press, and religious practice. The 27th amendment does not shield citizens from harassment as does the 4th amendment’s prohibition of “unreasonable searches and seizures.” It does not enjoy the pithy usage of “pleading the fifth,” nor does it possess the history-altering gravitas of the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. But the 27th amendment merits discussion because its path to ratification highlights the impact that one person can have in a democracy.
Following the ratification of the United States Constitution, members of Congress immediately began considering amendments that would guarantee the preservation of essential rights. From more than 200 proposals, the House approved seventeen, a dozen of which ended up being passed by the Senate.
Of these 12, 10 were ratified by the states within a few years, becoming the Bill of Rights. One, involving congressional apportionment, was delayed and was eventually superseded by statutory law. The other was introduced by none other than James Madison, beginning a strange 203-year odyssey that culminated in the ratification of the 27th amendment.
The Constitution requires that, for a proposed amendment to “take effect,” 3/4ths of the states must ratify it. The proposed amendment regarding congressional pay increases, however, failed to gain traction and was ratified by only seven of the states by 1792 – four fewer than needed at that time.
Years passed. Ohio ratified the amendment in 1873, in response to a sketchy effort by Congress to increase congressional salaries by fifty percent – applied retroactively, no less.
More years passed. Wyoming approved the proposed amendment in 1978 in response to another congressional pay increase. By this time, however, passage of the amendment required ratification by thirty-eight (3/4ths) of the states.
Enter Gregory Watson, who was then an undergraduate at the University of Texas. Writing a term paper for his political science class in 1982, he took up the cause. His paper consisted of two parts. One argued that the proposed amendment was – despite the elapsed 193 years – still viable. The second part was a call to action, exhorting the remaining 41 states to ratify.
In an interview for this article, Watson pointed out that the push for the amendment was about more than just preventing members of Congress from voting to give themselves raises. His efforts, he hoped, would also demonstrate “just how out of date the constitutional amendment process is.” Not only is it “wildly antiquated,” but it “also needlessly excludes the most important player in the American political system of democracy, i.e., the people themselves.”
In short, Watson was not only advocating for the amendment, he was giving voice to his view of democracy.
He sent letters to the 41 states that had yet to ratify the amendment. Outside academia his voice fell on eager ears.
Maine passed it in 1983. Colorado passed it in 1984.
Time passed. Watson became a legislative assistant for the Texas State Legislature. Ralph Nader joined the cause. By 1989 a majority of the states had ratified the proposed amendment, and The Washington Post covered the story, giving Watson’s progress additional momentum. In the next three years, ten more states ratified, leaving Watson only one state shy. In 1992, Alabama edged out Michigan and New Jersey, becoming the 38th state to ratify the amendment.
Constitutional scholars argued, Senator Robert Byrd rumbled, and a disengaged nation yawned. Meanwhile, on May 18, 1992, U.S. Archivist Don Wilson ratified the amendment. It was officially the 27th amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Gregory Watson, who started this process as a 20-year-old undergraduate at the University of Texas, had passed a constitutional amendment.
Watson is a modern-day Mr. Smith, taking his cause not only to Washington, but also across the nation. In so doing, he finished something that James Madison – the Father of the Constitution – did not. Think about that for a second.
When asked what it was like to build a partnership across the ages with James Madison on a constitutional amendment, Watson said, “I feel honored.”
But what about the 1982 term paper that revivified Madison’s proposed amendment? Watson made a C, because the “subject matter was not a hot enough topic.” Those damned political science professors.
Note: Professor John Holcombe incorporated the amendment into his class curriculum, sort of. As all professors know, students invariably ask for extra credit at some point during the semester. When asked, Holcombe would reply, “Yes, yes!”
No doubt the professor in Holcombe appreciated the students’ initiative; the Democrat in Holcombe appreciated the underdog looking to get ahead; the scholar in Holcombe appreciated the students’ intellectual curiosity.
Holcombe, as those who knew him can attest, was a giant of a man. But in this giant lived a little imp. And on this question, Holcombe deferred to the imp, who responded “Yes, students, here is your extra credit assignment. All you need to do is, like Gregory Watson, pass a constitutional amendment. Please complete it by the end of the semester.” Readers who would like to donate to the John Holcombe Scholarship Fund can contact Darlene Andrews at 294-3623.
Mike Yawn is a political science professor at Sam Houston State University.