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 in this country or how the political system cannot be changed, tell them the story of Watson and the 27th Amendment. On Constitution Day, Sept. 17, the power of the individual citizen in America is not dead.
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 told me in an interview. "In my mind, that was nothing more than a backdoor pay raise for members of Congress."
Though Congress passed Madison's amendment, it failed to achieve 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 nonissue," 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 one-man mission to revive moribund state ratifications, raising awareness coast to coast and stoking anti-Congress public sentiment. Starting in Maine in April 1983 and ending in Michigan in May 1992, Watson slowly resuscitated the proposal almost single-handedly.
"I was the one who did all of the letter writing, faxing and telephone calling to the state lawmakers," Watson said. "In many cases, I even went so far as to supply the state legislators with a draft model resolution to use in their state in order to accomplish ratification."
The 27th Amendment, proposed in September 1789, was ratified by the last state needed in May 1992. No other constitutional amendments have passed since.
With modern political polarization at unprecedented levels, 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.
"The problem," he acknowledged, "is getting it out of Congress and over to the states."
Watson believes a more likely scenario is the one set forth in a provision in Article V of the Constitution, under which three-quarters of states ratify first, triggering Congress to follow. No amendment has ever passed this way, but with Congress solidly gridlocked, there's a first time for everything. "Congress refuses to send to the states for ratification even the most common-sense proposals for amending the U.S. Constitution," Watson said.
Watson sees contemporary amendment proposals worth considering, citing a proposal introduced in August by Reps. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) and Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.). It would "stop Congress from arrogantly exempting itself from the laws that it deems fit to impose upon the rest of the American people," Watson explained.
Watson's story exemplifies the power of one ordinary individual to effect change at the highest government levels — perhaps a uniquely American ideal. The 27th Amendment curtailed congressional pay raises; since its 1992 passage, congressional pay has increased 34.4% (and has remained unchanged since 2009) relative to 67.1% inflation. By contrast, congressional pay had skyrocketed 44.7% in the five years before passage of the amendment.
In an era in which many Americans feel their voices go unheeded at the highest levels of public policy decision-making, Watson is the opposite of disillusioned. "Back then, I was dependent on communicating via U.S. Postal Service — and at considerable monetary expense, to say nothing about how laborious and time-consuming the process was," Watson said. "Today, by contrast ... an entire state's lawmakers could be communicated with through email at the mere click of a mouse."
Jesse Rifkin is a journalism and political science major at the University of Connecticut.