One hundred and fifty years ago Virginian politicians met in Richmond. The topic: secession.
“The Tenth Amendment assures that we, the people of the United States of America and each sovereign state of the United States, now have, and have always had, rights the federal government may not usurp,” two delegates wrote.
“And as the federal government has grown destructive of the ends for which it was established, both liberty and prosperity in the United States are facing an existential crisis,” wrote another.
Virginia should assert its sovereignty, they argued, and refuse to be pushed around by the federal government.
Just kidding. Virginia politicians didn't propose all that stuff 150 years ago. They're doing it right now.
There's a distinctly pro-state, anti-fed tenor to several bills put forth in the 2011 session of the General Assembly, stemming from widespread resentment about federal deficits and controversial mandates such as President Barack Obama's health-care law. The big bill is championed by Delegate James M. LeMunyon, R-Fairfax, which proposes a U.S. constitutional amendment that permits the repeal of any federal law or regulation by vote of two-thirds of the state legislatures. Another bill proposes that an increase in the federal debt would require approval from a majority of state legislatures.
A third bill would establish a joint subcommittee to determine if the federal government is complying with the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights in its treatment of Virginia residents
And in another piece of legislation, “the Commonwealth of Virginia hereby claims sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States” over all powers not otherwise granted to the federal government.
What's going on here?
The “shove it down the throat of the federal government” mentality has been present in Virginia for years, says Bill Leighty, Gov. Mark Warner's former chief of staff and now a professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. However, he says, “it clearly stands out this year,” because of the strong current of anti-fed public opinion.
LeMunyon's bill is intended to restore the vertical checks and balances that the nation's founders intended, says Jamie Radtke, former president of the Richmond Tea Party, and to push back against federal regulatory bodies that are trying to impose regulations people don't support.
The relationship between the federal and state governments should really be a dialogue, says Delegate Chris Peace, R-Hanover, who proposed the federal-debt bill. “But right now it's a lecture.”
Radtke believes LeMunyon's bill, which would permit the state legislatures to repeal a federal law, has an excellent chance of passing the House of Delegates this year, but will face a challenge in the Senate. Last year, one sovereignty-themed bill was passed by the House, but ultimately languished in a Senate committee.
A few other bills introduced this session display an interesting twist on the standard states'-rights rhetoric. Delegate Robert G. Marshall, R-Loudoun, proposes that Virginia should explore creating its own currency in case the Federal Reserve System collapses. That would allow Virginia to “avoid or at least mitigate many of the economic, social, and political shocks to be expected to arise from hyperinflation, depression, or other economic calamity,” the resolution states.
Another bill says the feds should keep their mitts off anything produced in Virginia, as long as it stays within state lines. Delegates Mark L. Cole, R-Fredericksburg, and Richard P. Bell, R-Staunton, propose anything “grown, mined, extracted, or created” in-state, as long as it's labeled “Made in Virginia” or “Produced in Virginia,” shall not be subject to federal law or regulation. Another bill proposes the same exemption for guns made in Virginia.
The United States has “always had this sort of, I don't want to say militant, but militantlike states'-rights mentality,” says Quentin Kidd, an associate professor of political science at Christopher Newport University. It runs strong in the South, he says, because of lingering resentment over the Civil War.
The recent recession just added fuel to the fire of discontent, Kidd says. It's his opinion that “as the economy improves, some of these resentments and some of these frustrations will sort of settle down.”
Radtke disagrees. “No. 1, it doesn't look like the economy is going to improve anytime soon because of the way the national government is behaving,” she says. No. 2 is the massive national debt, she says, which worries Republicans and Democrats alike.
Virginia's don't-tread-on-me attitude's not a bad thing, Leighty says. “This is the way the framers of our Constitution wanted things to be. … They wanted this healthy tension. And some years this tension might be stronger than others.”
The Virginia legislature used to make an annual tradition out of ordering the federal government around, Leighty says, passing resolutions encouraging Congress to do this or that. “It got so bad that the speaker basically said, ‘We're not going to do this anymore.'”
Did Congress ever listen to what Virginia legislators said it ought to do?
“Not really,” Leighty says.