Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Longest Amendment

This past evening I was helping out my younger brother as he was working on a 'getting to know the constitution' worksheet for his American Government class. As we went through the sheet it became very apparent that he was not exactly appreciating the 'historical' context that I was adding to his work, he just wanted to fill in the bubbles and move on to other things.

It may seem like the constitution is a dusty old piece of parchment written by men who wore wigs and make-up, sitting in a non-air-conditioned brick building in the late 18th Century, but I was reminded tonight that there are some very interesting stories of how our constitution was written and why it has stood the test of time to uphold our republic. With that said here is a story you may or may not know about the US Constitution, and hopefully it will be slightly more appreciated than Monday night at my house.

At 24 words, the 27th Amendment of the Constitution may not be the longest Amendment in word count (the longest being Amendment 14 at 432 words and the shortest the 8th at 16 words) but after ratification on May 5, 1992 it became the longest a proposed amendment had been sent to the states for ratification after a resounding 202 years. (Not a typo, years, not days).

In September of 1789 during the First Congress in New York City, James Madison proposed the "Congressional Pay Amendment" and it was approved by two-thirds of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It was then sent to the states where 7 states (Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Delaware, Vermont, Virginia and Kentucky) ratified. Unfortunately for James Madison and what would have been the 12th Amendment, 10 states were needed at the time to place it into the Constitution.

Now fast forward 192 years to Austin, Texas. Where an undergrad student at the University of Texas Gregory Watson happened upon this 'lost amendment' while doing a research paper on the Equal Rights Amendment effort of the 1970's. His paper focused on the idea that Article 5 of the Constitution didn't set a timeline or deadline for ratification of Constitutional Amendments that passed Congress. He received a C on the paper for not convincing his teacher his interpretation of Article 5 was correct.

Upon deciding that the "Congressional Pay Amendment" was something that could be used to stop corruption of elected officials in Congress, Watson set out to get the remaining 25 states needed (32 overall) to finally ratify Madison's proposal. He tackled the issue state by state beginning first in Maine, then Colorado and down the list until he convinced two-thirds of the states that the "Congressional Pay Amendment" was the right thing to do.

After several lawsuits challenging the timeliness of the Amendment, none of which were even taken up by the judiciary, on May 5, 1992 when Alabama ratified, the "Congressional Pay Amendment" became the 27th and newest member of the US Constitution. It wouldn't be officially added until May 18th, 1992 when official certification was completed by the Archivist of the United States. (And interestingly enough Don Wilson, Archivist at the time, did not request Congressional Approval of the ratification before placing the Amendment into the Constitution, due to ambiguous language in Article 5. Wilson was reprimanded for his actions and the House and Senate both passed questionably unnecessary resolutions accepting the ratification of the Amendment on May 20th, 1992, two days after it had already been placed into law.)

Now you may be thinking along the lines of my brother earlier, "if it's not in my textbook, I do not need to know it" but I would say that Gregory Watson worked for 10 years to prove that just because it happened in 1789 doesn't mean it's irrelevant today. Sometimes just knowing that a mere undergrad at UT helped to ratify the Constitution of the United States is enough to make you realize that the halls of power aren't among the marbled columns of Washington, but everywhere else.


This post is rated SPF 202, thats in years, not days.

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