“I am only one person, what can I do to change the Federal Government.” Does that sound familiar? Gregory D. Watson could have satisfied himself to stay silent, or just complain without action like most of us do, but he chose a different path. It was a difficult ten year struggle, and it cost him thousands of dollars from his own pocket. Some would say it was only a symbolic victory. I disagree completely. On May 7, 1992 the Twenty-seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became law when the Maine legislature became the thirty-eighth state to ratify it. That amendment was first proposed by James Madison as part of the Bill of Rights in 1789. While ten of Madison’s proposed protections were approved by the required fine states, the one banning Congressional pay raises to sitting members was not.
In 1982, Gregory Watson was a sophomore at University of Texas- Austin. While doing research for a political history class, he stumbled upon the fact that this amendment had been proposed, but for some reason, no expiration date had been included in the language. In a term paper, he contended that the amendment was still alive and could be ratified by additional states to become part of the Constitution. Unfortunately, the professor disagreed and gave Gregory a C on the paper. Undeterred, he continued to campaign for the measure by contacting state and Federal legislators. A breakthrough occurred in 1983 when one of Maine’s U.S. Senators contacted is State legislature and recommended they consider the measure. Maine’s ratification of the amendment was a great encouragement, and over the following years at his own expense, Gregory continue to contact state legislatures urging a vote on the Amendment.
Thanks in part to rising public outcry about Congressional pay raises, five states ratified the Amendment in 1985, and twenty more followed by 1990. Maine became the thirty-eighth state in May of 1992, making the 203 year “consideration” of the Twenty-seventh Amendment the longest in our history. One person can make a difference.
As a footnote: James Madison actually proposed nineteen Amendments as the original bill of rights. Congressional debate combined some and ended with twelve Amendments sent to the States for ratification. Ten became our Bill of Rights and one is discussed here, but there was one proposed amendment that never made it. The one Amendment (technically still pending) deals with Congressional Apportionment. That was set in the Constitution at 1:30,000, and could be adjusted at each ten year census. The maximum number of Representatives now stands at 435, which is 1:±750,000. In the minds of many Americans, this far exceeds the intent of the Founders in limiting representation to a number to which Representatives would be able to “have a relationship with” their constituents. Perhaps some of our current inability to control Congress lies in the fact that we fell one state short in 1791 in ratifying an important limitation of the size and power of government.
Material in this article is drawn in part from an article at History.com