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December 1, 2015

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A states’ rights ruse

Tea Party-supported ‘repeal amendment’ is divisive and unnecessary

Encouraged by last month’s election, Tea Party supporters are pushing a constitutional amendment that would give states the right to overturn federal laws. Under the “repeal amendment,” it would take two-thirds of the state legislatures to nullify a law.

As The New York Times reported last week, the push for this proposed amendment, born out of right-wing anger over the health care law, is being sold under the banner of protecting “states’ rights,” even though it is a crass political power play. It has, however, started gaining support in conservative circles. Republican Rep. Eric Cantor, the incoming House majority leader, gave it his approval when the measure was introduced in Congress.

To be added to the Constitution, the amendment will have to be approved by both chambers of Congress and 38 state legislatures. That will be a difficult task, but the Tea Party has been whipping up considerable anger toward the government — often disingenuously.

A central Tea Party theme is that it is rooted in the principles of the Founding Fathers, including their purported belief in a weak federal government. But that’s not necessarily true. There are Founding Fathers who wouldn’t be welcome at a modern Tea Party rally, and the country’s early leaders had many divergent opinions and significant disagreements. There was debate over whether states could nullify the federal government’s actions, and it’s notable that the Founding Fathers didn’t give states that right.

The revisionist history is troubling, particularly when it comes to the issue of states’ rights. For example, last Monday a group in Charleston, S.C., held a “Secession Ball” to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the state’s secession from the United States. The ball featured a historic re-enactment and a chance for attendees to see the actual “Ordinance of Secession.”

It is stunning that anyone would celebrate secession, particularly given that South Carolina tried to leave the union to protect legalized slavery.

The Civil War should have ended much of the debate on states’ rights, but the issue has persisted, including an attempt by several Southern states in the 1950s to find a way to override the Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation ruling Brown v. Board of Education. Throughout the history of the country, states’ rights have been asserted on many divisive issues.

Although it is certainly anyone’s right to pursue a constitutional amendment, there’s no need for this one. There are restraints on the federal government, and if people don’t like the way things are going, they have plenty of options under the Constitution. They can take up their concerns with Congress directly and argue for a change in a law or a repeal; they can take their complaints to the courts, or they can go to the ballot box and elect people who agree with them.

Opponents of the health care law are pursuing action in the courts and members of Congress have vowed to try to repeal the law. So why amend the Constitution when it’s working, as intended?

Supporters of the repeal amendment have trumped up a phony issue to continue their fight against health care and their political opponents. Under the Constitution, they have the right to do that, but it doesn’t lessen the fact that it’s divisive — and wrong.

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