Rick Perry embraces the fringe

Facing a tough Republican primary fight, the Texas governor endorses the state sovereignty movement, a favorite of the far-right.

Published April 14, 2009 8:35PM (EDT)

Texas Gov. Rick Perry isn't immune from your typical American's fear over their job security in this economy. Right now, in fact, it seems as if he might be out of a job pretty soon, as Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison looks set to mount a primary challenge against him next year, and early polls show her in the lead. So he's been working hard on his appeal to the right lately, rejecting some stimulus money (and fighting with Hutchison over it), talking with Glenn Beck and, now, appealing directly to the fringe.

Last week, Perry announced his support for a non-binding resolution currently under consideration in the Texas House that says the federal government has overstepped the authority granted to it under the Constitution, and is trampling on the powers reserved for the states, especially as enumerated in the 10th Amendment.

“Millions of Texans... are tired of Washington, D.C. trying to come down here and tell us how to run Texas," Perry said at a press conference about his decision. "The 10th Amendment was enacted by folks who remembered what it was like to have a very oppressive government, to be under the thumb of tyrants in an all-powerful government. Unfortunately, the protections it guarantees have melted away over the course of the years... I believe the federal government has become oppressive. I believe it's become oppressive in its size, its intrusion into the lives of its citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state.”

On Tuesday, the governor got what he wanted -- and probably more -- from his announcement, as a big link from the Drudge Report took the story national. But what he's also accomplished is to link himself to the fringe "state sovereignty" movement that's now advocating for resolutions like this in 20 states. Illustrating where on the political spectrum this falls, the push is being heavily promoted by World Net Daily, the Web site that brought you the Birthers.

Ultimately, the resolution, if passed, will mean little. At both the state and federal level, these sorts of symbolic things come up all the time, on all kinds of issues. They're usually little more than a chance for politicians to tell their constituents they took a stand. This one's no different. If the resolution passes, Texas won't be obligated to return federal money or ignore conditions imposed upon it by Congresst; it'll just tell the feds they should stop doing things Texas lawmakers believe are unconstitutional.

As for whether those things actually are unconstitutional, well, at least some of them aren't, as the legislators who drafted the resolution managed to get their facts about the 10th Amendment wrong. One provision, for example, reads, "RESOLVED, That all compulsory federal legislation that directs states to comply under threat of civil or criminal penalties or sanctions or that requires states to pass legislation or lose federal funding be prohibited or repealed."

What this section describes has now become commonplace -- it's the way Congress effectively mandated a federal drinking age -- and, in cases like South Dakota v. Dole, the Supreme Court has declared the practice Constitutional. Louis R. Cohen, a former U.S. deputy solicitor general, successfully argued that case on behalf of the federal government. He told Salon, "Insofar as Congress is spending federal money, Congress has very wide authority to state the conditions under which it will spend federal money. If that means that the state has to do certain things in order to qualify for the federal money, that's perfectly Constitutional."

Update: The original headline on this post, "Rick Perry secedes from the U.S.," was intended to be a joke, but that wasn't made clear enough. To clarify, what Perry endorsed was not secession but a non-binding resolution saying the federal government should stop what some Texas legislators believe is an unconstitutional abuse of power. My apologies for the confusion.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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