If you’re concerned that this means the Constitution was amended recently without anybody telling the public about it, that concern is totally understandable. But that’s not what happened. This story, reported on March 13 by KUT, Austin’s NPR station, is way less scary and possibly even more amazing than that would be.
In 1982, Gregory Watson was a sophomore at the University of Texas. In a government class his professor required everybody to write a paper on a “governmental process,” and he decided he was interested in the process for amending the Constitution. He found a book at the library that discussed amendments Congress has sent to the states but have never been adopted (because not enough state legislatures ratified them), and he thought that sounded interesting. He was especially interested in this one, which was written by James Madison, no less:
No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives shall take effect until an election of representatives shall have intervened.
This was sent to the states in 1789, in fact, along with eleven other proposed amendments, ten of which you may know as the Bill of Rights. But this one and its even lamer colleague, the “Congressional Apportionment Amendment,” weren’t approved by the necessary three-fourths of the states. By 1791, the compensation amendment only had seven states lined up, so it didn’t become law, and everybody more or less forgot about it.
In each of the next two centuries, a state legislature dusted the thing off and ratified it, both times to protest a pay raise Congress had voted itself. Ohio did that in 1873, and Wyoming in 1978. They could do that because Article Five, which governs the amendment process, doesn’t say anything about a time limit for ratification. Since the 18th, almost all proposed amendments have included a time limit in the legislation itself, so if they don’t get the necessary votes in time (usually seven years), they expire. But the earlier ones, including the compensation amendment, didn’t have time limits.
But only four years this time, which brings us up to 1982 and Gregory Watson’s library visit. That book informed him that this amendment was still around, and while only nine states were on board, one of those ratifications was pretty recent. Maybe it could be revived, he thought! At a minimum, it was a great idea for a paper, so he wrote it up and submitted it.
He got a C, which irked him. He appealed to his professor, but she wouldn’t change the grade. “So I thought right then and there,” he said, “‘I’m going to get that thing ratified.'” Ha! Good luck with that project. Have a nice life!
He did it.
If the thing was still alive, then it already had nine votes. At this point—there now being 50 states—it needed a total of 38. So he started writing letters. Lots of letters. After lots of rejections, Sen. William Cohen of Maine got interested. He passed it on, and Maine’s legislature ratified it in 1983. Gregory kept writing letters. Colorado ratified it in 1984, joined by five more states in 1985, three in each of the next three years, then seven in 1989. In 1992, it got the 38th vote. And that is why the language above is now the Twenty-Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Obviously, constitutional amendments are pretty rare. Proposed amendments, though, are not. Under Article Five, an amendment can be proposed and sent to the states by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress, or by a national convention if three-fourths of the states call for one. There’s never been a convention for that purpose, and my God, what a nightmare that would probably become. Congress has generated 33 in total, two of which failed and four of which are still floating around out there, if you want to start writing letters.
But those are the proposals that made it out of Congress. It is not at all rare for congresspeople to introduce proposals for amending the Constitution, it turns out; in fact, to date there have been more than 11,000 proposed amendments, most of which never make it out of committee. A couple dozen of those proposals are listed here, the poorly named “Flag Desecration Amendment” being the dumbest idea among them. I’m confident that many failed proposals have been even dumber than that one, and I will report those to you as soon as I have time to review all 11,000-plus. And don’t think I won’t. Gregory had his project, I have mine.
Speaking of Gregory, to his credit he never called up his government-studies professor to say “I told you so.” But somebody else (who was writing a book about amendments) did call her recently:
She did not know that. But she was willing to sign a form officially changing his grade on that paper from a C to an A. So he will at last be vindicated, assuming the university approves it.
“They said, ‘Well did you teach at UT Austin in the early ‘80s?’ and I said, ‘Yes I did,’” [the former professor said]. “And then they asked, ‘Did you know that one of your students, Gregory Watson, pursued getting this constitutional amendment passed because you gave him a bad grade?’”
Given that it was a paper about amending the Constitution, and that he has since managed to amend the Constitution, he really does seem to deserve that A. It doesn’t get much better than that.