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History

May 10, 2012

BRUCE’S HISTORY LESSONS: The long, lost, last — the 27th —Amendment

TERRE HAUTE — Our very last constitutional amendment — the 27th Amendment — was ratified this week (May 7) in 1992 when Michigan became the 38th state to approve it.

Call it the long, lost, last amendment because it was originally proposed 203 years earlier, in 1789, when it was among the original 12 amendments Congress sent to the states for ratification. The states subsequently approved 10 amendments, which became our Bill of Rights.

The two amendments that the states failed to approve were actually the first two proposed by Congress. The proposed First Amendment dealt with how to determine the size of the House of Representatives.

The proposed Second Amendment — now our 27th — prohibited Congress from voting itself a pay raise without an intervening election.

How an amendment that had been forgotten for 200 years finally became the law of the land is a fascinating story that begins with Gregory Watson, a student at the University of Texas, who was looking for a topic to write a paper on and stumbled across the un-ratified congressional compensation amendment.

He found that of the 11 states needed for ratification in 1789, six had already done so, and in 1873 Ohio had joined them, angered by Congress’s huge retroactive pay increase of that year.

Intrigued, Watson wrote a paper on the amendment’s history that included an analysis of how to get this long-dead amendment ratified. His teacher, Sharon Waite, was unimpressed and gave him a “C” on the paper, but Watson still believed his cause had merit and so he began writing petitions to state legislatures, arguing his case. Astonishingly, the state of Maine bought his argument in 1983 and Colorado followed suit in 1984.

That caught the attention of state officials in Wyoming, who announced that their state too had previously ratified this amendment — in 1977 — also as a protest against a previous congressional pay raise.

Suddenly, Watson’s campaign began picking up national attention and prominent supporters, including Ralph Nader, and by 1989 Watson had 34 of the 38 states needed for ratification. He got two more in 1990, one more in 1991, and finally Michigan beat out New Jersey to become the state that made it official.

Alas, the story of the 27th Amendment has, so far, not had a totally happy ending because Congress has gotten around the amendment by giving itself several pay raises in the guise of cost-of-living adjustments.

As for Sharon Waite, she was later asked if she regretted the “C” she gave Gregory Watson. She responded that she did not remember him, nor could she be expected to since her lecture classes each included some 300 students and she had been lecturing for quite a number of years.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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