Gregory Watson’s college essay received a C — and changed America.
The next time someone goes on about how one citizen can’t make a difference or how the political system cannot be changed, tell them about Watson and the 27th Amendment.
In 1982, a University of Texas political science professor assigned an essay about the governmental process. Watson, then a student, came across a long-forgotten constitutional amendment proposed in 1789 and chose that topic for his paper.
Rep. (and future president) James Madison had proposed that any pay increase Congress voted for itself would not take effect until after the next election. That way, current representatives could not vote themselves a self-serving immediate pay raise, and would have to risk that any vote for a raise could benefit successors who might be ideological or political rivals.
Watson, now a policy analyst for GOP Texas state Rep. Bill Callegari, thinks the founders were right to be concerned, giving a modern-era example.
“Congress in December 1981 had given itself a unique tax break applicable only to members of Congress and tried to hide it in a bill to address the needs of persons in the coal-mining industry who became afflicted with black lung disease,” Watson said.
Though Congress passed Madison’s amendment, it failed to get the required ratification from three-quarters of state legislatures to become law. Watson felt that recent events merited reconsideration of the amendment, yet his essay earned a C.
“Both the (teaching assistant) and the professor took the position that the issue was trivial, so trivial in fact that to them it was a non-issue,” Watson recalled. “Both also took the position that what was then a 192-year-old proposed constitutional amendment was no longer pending before the state legislatures.”
Watson’s solution: Make it a live issue before state legislatures.
Over the next decade, Watson embarked on a mission to revive moribund state ratifications, raising awareness coast to coast and stoking anti-Congress public sentiment. He slowly resuscitated the proposal almost single-handedly.
The 27th Amendment, proposed in 1789, was ratified by the last state needed in 1992.
With modern political polarization, could a constitutional amendment ever occur again?
“Yes,” Watson said, “because if a proposal is very, very, very common sense, state lawmakers in both parties in the state capitals will realize that the American people — and the voters in their particular state — would want them to support it.
Jesse Rifkin is a journalism and political science major at the University of Connecticut. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.