Virginia House Speaker Bill Howell (R-Fredericksburg) has announced that the Virginia legislature will consider an amendment to the Constitution that will allow two-thirds of the state legislatures to repeal federal legislation. Right now, I have no idea how plausible this is - I am skeptical about how far it would get, but it's fascinating for at least two reasons.
Reason 1: It's a pretty decent reform that is not what Tom Woods has been proposing
First, like the repeal of the seventeenth amendment, I think this is actually an excellent Constitutional reform. The arc of Constitutional reform for most of the 19th and 20th centuries was in the right direction: expansion of democracy, incorporation of the states into Constitutional defenses of liberty, and the solidification of the federal government as a functional institution of governance. But what we've found is that while democracy and equality have benefited from the amendments we've passed, federalism has atrophied as a meaningful pillar of American society. The question is, how do we give greater primacy to federalism? For a while we tried to do it legislatively with various devolution measures, and these provided a mixed record of success. In the end, my assessment is that these devolution measures ended up giving the states more freedom of action, but essentially putting them on a federal allowance. Repealing the seventeenth amendment, which provided for the direct election of Senators, would elevate the role of the states in a meaningful way, and make the federal government accountable to the states. This amendment that will be considered by the Virginia legislature would appear to do the same. Winning two-thirds of the state legislatures for repeal is quite a hurdle, after all. It's a relatively conservative measure, in that sense.
Of course for my libertarian readers, I'm sure this brings Tom Woods' recent push for nullification to mind. Nullification is a tough subject, and I think this is especially true for thoughtful Southerners. On the one hand, if a law is blatantly unconstitutional, I don't think anyone would really balk at local officials who stand up against it. Lots of states have marijuana laws, and have moved against the Patriot Act, etc. I would argue that when nullification is used against truly heinous federal laws as Jefferson and Madison originally intended it to be used against the Alien and Sedition Acts, you don't have a groundswell of opposition to it. We have an inherent sense of what is appropriate without assuming a right of the states to opt-out of the decisions of the Union. Woods doesn't have to make his case on these counts - he'd be preaching to the choir. What bothers me about Woods is that he's trying to push an opt-out understanding of the Constitution that allows any state to appeal to even the most defunct and demolished understandings of what is "unconstitutional" to chart its own course. This is not federalism - this is a repudiation of our constitutional republic. Moreover, this is not what Howell is proposing at all.
I'm sure Tom Woods will embrace Howell's proposal in the Virginia legislature (and I'm sure that lots of normally objective liberals are going to howl against it make vague references to the Confederacy), but it's simply not the same as Woods' nullification. This is not an opt-out for states. This is a reform of the way federal legislation is passed that does provide a greater role for the states, but still relies on very broad consensus for action. Two-thirds of the states deciding they don't like one egregious piece of legislation is very different from South Carolina deciding it doesn't want to be bound by two-thirds of federal legislation because some crack-pot Constitutional "scholar" supplied them with a handful of bad arguments telling them they don't have to. This isn't the Tom Woods nullification plan - this is the anti-Woods states rights plan.
Reason 2: It opens Pandora's Box on the Constitution
Jefferson has remarked that the tree of liberty must now and then be fertilized with the blood of patriots and tyrants, and that constitutions should be scrapped and rewritten on a regular basis. I'll humbly disagree with Jefferson on this point, and submit that he probably would have come around to the modern view himself. Jefferson's primary concern was that he didn't want previous generations binding future generations to their understanding of government. In other words, Jefferson was a progressive and a democrat that wanted flexibility in government. What I think we've learned is that (1.) war is an awful and scarring way to keep government flexible, and (2.) the Constitution was constructed with deliberately flexible language for precisely the reasons that Jefferson was concerned about: the founders wanted to leave a wide open field for their descendants to chart their own destiny, within a structure that they carefully set to balance liberty, equality, and self-governance.
What does this have to do with Howell's proposal in the Virginia legislature? Howell is proposing to pass this amendment with a constitutional convention. Two-thirds of the state legislatures would have to call for a convention, at which three fourths of the states would have to ratify the amendment. No constitutional amendment has ever been passed in this way - all have originated in Congress. One of the concerns is that if a convention is called, the whole Constitution could be scrapped or modified. This is essentially what happened with the first Constitutional Convention, after all. Needless to say, I think this probably wouldn't be an ideal move. Our Constitution is working well, but I don't hold the document sacred. I'm more concerned that I don't think anyone today could write one that would improve it, and I'm especially concerned about the hostilities and passions it could raise. Of course, if a convention were called without incident or radical change, that could be a great step forward.
Federalism is weak in this country. The Constitution has served us well, but people don't place a lot of value on it and the ones that loudly proclaim the value they place on it often distort it to fit their own ideology. This Howell amendment probably won't pass, but at its heart it offers a very good proposal and raises some interesting issues.
Noted for June 19, 2013
4 hours ago