The next time someone says one citizen can’t make a difference or the system cannot be changed, tell them about Watson and the 27th Amendment. The power of the individual citizen in America is not dead.
In 1982, a UT political science professor assigned an essay about the governmental process. Watson, then a student, wrote on a long-forgotten constitutional amendment proposed in 1789.
Rep. James Madison (a future president) had proposed that any pay increase Congress voted for itself would not take effect until after the next election. That way, representatives could not vote themselves an immediate pay raise and would have to risk that any vote for a raise could benefit successors who might be political rivals.
Watson, now a policy analyst for Texas state Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy, cited a modern example.
“Congress in … 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.”
Congress passed Madison’s amendment, but it failed to be ratified by three-quarters of state legislatures to become part of the Constitution. 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.
He embarked on a one-man mission to revive moribund state ratifications, stoking anti-Congress public sentiment. Starting in Maine in April 1983 and ending in Michigan in May 1992, Watson slowly resuscitated the proposal.
The 27th Amendment, proposed in September 1789, was ratified by the last state needed in May 1992.
With 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 said, “is getting it out of Congress and over to the states.”
Watson believes a more likely scenario is set forth 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 gridlocked, there’s a first time for everything.
Many Americans may feel their voices go unheeded, but Watson is not 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.”