Overcoming Tone-deafness

You’ve seen them: the Secede bumper stickers backdropped by an image of the Texas flag. Though even the governor has touted the secession concept on the stump to connect with his base, few Texans actually envision us getting to that point.

Like Sam Houston, most Texas Republicans see the high value of life in the Union. We admire the commitment of our party’s father (Abraham Lincoln) to keep the Union together during its darkest hour decades ago.

However, the intimation does reveal a swing of the pendulum along the spectrum of federal power versus states’ rights.

John Adams described the great debate this way in June 1776:

“Yesterday the greatest question was decided which ever was debated in America; and a greater perhaps never was, nor will be, decided among men. A resolution was passed without one dissenting colony, that those United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.”

And the Trinity-like paradox began: independent yet united; separate but together; individual states and, all the while, a nation.

During and after the American Revolution, the inadequate Articles of Confederation failed to strike the right balance. A central government needs authority to raise armies and funds, pay debts, print currency, create a framework for national commerce, etc. The Articles provided none. They were too heavily weighted toward states’ rights.

Called by Adams “the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen,” the United States Constitution brought a balance. Among the many checks provided therein, the document declares two ways to amend itself.

Constitutional amendments can come from either: (1) Congress itself or (2) the states, if two-thirds of the state legislatures approve. (All proposed amendments must then be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures or conventions.)

In the two centuries since its creation, no amendment has come forth by the latter method, i.e., from the states. Some think deploying the mechanism is long overdue, especially given the tone-deafness of the current Congress.

This week, Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst floated the idea of states passing a federal constitutional amendment requiring the federal government to balance its budget. Most states have such a provision in their charters. Dewhurst thinks D.C. needs one.

States also issue debt in “broad daylight,” that is, with clear legislative and/or voter approval and with a stated revenue stream to repay the debt.

Dewhurst’s constitutional amendment could require similar transparency on federal debt issues, thereby prompting restraint before China and our other global lenders force it on us.

The point is that since Congress (and the courts, for that matter) have muscled through policy changes that don’t jive with the broad populations of the states, the states (i.e., the people) have a way to wrestle back control.

It won’t be easy. There’s a reason why it’s never been done. But thanks to some foresighted framers, it is still possible.


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