How a college essay led to a constitutional amendment

The 27th Amendment is the most recent amendment to the Constitution, and its existence today can be attributed to a student who proposed the idea in an essay and received a C from their teacher for the idea.

Today marks the anniversary of the ratification of the Amendment in 1992, and it seems likely that we won’t see a 28th Amendment for some time.

“No law modifying the remuneration for the services of senators and representatives will come into force until an election of representatives has taken place,” reads the 27th amendment, as approved in 1992. In short, the amendment states that a sitting Congress cannot grant itself a raise (or reduce its salary) during its current session. Any increase or reduction in salary can only take effect for the Congress which follows a Congress in session.

It is not a new idea. Founding Father James Madison first proposed this amendment in 1789 along with several other amendments that became the Bill of Rights, but it took 203 years for it to become the law of the land.

In 1982, an undergraduate student, Gregory Watson, discovered that the proposed amendment could still be ratified and launched a popular campaign. Watson was also an assistant to Texas State Senator Ric Williamson.

Shortly after the amendment was ratified a decade later, New York Law School professor Richard B. Bernstein traced the course from 1789 to 1992 in a Fordham Law Journal Article. Bernstein called Watson the “stepfather” of the 27th Amendment. Watson was in his sophomore year at the University of Texas-Austin in 1982 and needed a subject for a course on government. Watson researched what became the 27th Amendment and found that six states had ratified it by 1792, and then there was little activity on it.

Watson concluded that the amendment could still be ratified because Congress never stipulated a deadline for states to consider it for ratification. Watson’s professor gave it a C for the paper, calling the idea a “dead letter” question and saying it would never be part of the Constitution. “The teacher gave me a C on the paper. When I protested, she said that I had not convinced her that the amendment was still pending ”, Watson told USA Today in 1992. (In 2017, the university retroactively assigned Watson an A for his paper.)

Undeterred, Watson launched a self-funded campaign to get the amendment ratified. He wrote letters to state officials, and the amendment was ratified in Maine in 1983 and Colorado in 1984. The story appeared in a magazine titled State legislatures and a Wyoming official, reading the magazine, confirmed that his state had also ratified the amendment, six years earlier.

The proposed amendment and its supporters have exploited the anger of the general public at the Congressional salary increases. Five more states ratified it in 1985, as legal experts questioned whether the whole process was valid.

One problem with the process was a 1921 Supreme Court case called Dillon vs. Gloss. In that case, the Court, in a unanimous decision, declared that when “modifications are[proposél’implicationraisonnable[is] that when proposed, they should be investigated and eliminated immediately. However, the court did not explicitly require Congress to set an expiration date for amendments to be ratified by states.

In 1992, two states rushed to be the 38th state to sign the 27th Amendment, making it part of the Constitution. Alabama beat New Jersey to the fist on May 7, 1992, but New Jersey also quickly voted for ratification.

The ratification, Bernstein said, took Congress by surprise, with some key leaders still questioning the legality of the approach to ratification. However, the United States Archivist certified the amendment as ratified under Section V of the Constitution and published it in the Federal Register. And Congress expressed support for the amendment in a nearly unanimous vote.

Since then, the 27th Amendment has received very little publicity except for an occasional report on Watson’s personal quest to get it passed. But in 2014, during the congressional fight for the federal government’s budget, GOP House leaders proposed tying Congressional pay to the budget debate, and it didn’t take long for reporters and academics to recall the 27th amendment.

Critics were quick to point out that withholding pay, even temporarily, would “vary” the pay of members of Congress and, in their view, would be a direct violation of the 27th Amendment. Eventually, a short-term budget compromise was reached and the validity of the bill under the 27th Amendment was never tested.


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