Chris Graham: Repealing 50 years of advances in basic civil rights

“The federal government,” says Bill Howell, the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, “has long ago usurped the power reserved to the states and the people via our Constitution.”

Here we go again. Looks like we’re about to refight the Civil War.

Howell is in Washington today to talk up something called the Repeal Amendment. The language of the proposed amendment calls for the effective repeal of any provision of law or regulation by the states when two-thirds of states approve repeal by legislative resolution.

“The Repeal Amendment restores the balance of power between the states and federal government,” Howell said. “The time is now for the states to restore that power, and that is why I am sponsoring an Article V application for the Repeal Amendment and encourage every state to do the same.”

At first glance, I want to believe this is just more of the same in the line of clumsy politics being played by Republican leaders trying to appeal to their Tea Party base. The press release sent to me giving details of this Repeal Amendment movement included supporting comments from House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Sixth District Congressman Bob Goodlatte, who succinctly summed the thoughts of the group.

“The federal government,” Goodlatte said, “has expanded the finite authority the U.S. Constitution actually grants to it into seemingly infinite authority and has blurred the distinction between the roles of the federal and state governments. The Repeal Amendment will provide a new tool for American citizens to voice their opposition through their state legislatures when the federal government oversteps its boundaries.”

The rhetoric here isn’t much different than what we’ve been hearing from partisan Republicans since the inauguration of Barack Obama, whose most egregious sin, like the most egregious sin of Bill Clinton, is being a Democratic president. With Clinton, the GOP’s tactical mistake was to make it personal; the anti-Obama tactic has been less personal but no less over the top, in labeling everything that comes out of the milquetoast liberal-wannabe bipartisan moderate “socialist.” But with this talk about repeal, I’m afraid I’m hearing something more than the usual we-don’t-like-Democrats talk that we’ve been hearing from Republicans the past 15 or 20 years.

Read more columns by Chris Graham at TheWorldAccordingToChrisGraham.com.

The biggest expansion of federal authority, I would argue, came in the 1960s with the response of the federal government to the abuses of the Jim Crow South, which for the century following the Civil War had systematically disenfranchised and delegitimized African-Americans into second-class citizenship. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act coinciding with the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson that were aimed at lifting poor blacks and poor Appalachian whites who had also been effectively subjugated as a side-effect of Jim Crow changed not only the fortunes of the Southern people but as well changed forever between the federal government and the states.

Already reeling from FDR’s New Deal, the states, unable or unwilling to protect the basic civil rights of their citizens, were reduced to what amounted to a second-class citizenship in relation to the federal government.

Going on a half-century later now, you can argue the merits of restoring some sense of balance in the relationship of the states and the federal government, but we can’t here easily divorce the merits of the argument from the people making the argument. Republican leaders have been out front in the effort to deny basic civil rights to gays and lesbians, to deny women the right to make decisions about their reproductive futures, to make it harder for women to end marriages with abusive husbands, to punish the children of undocumented immigrants who have spent their entire lives as Americans by denying them educational opportunity.

This Repeal Amendment hooie, of course, is not an end, but rather a means. Nobody expects the Repeal Amendment to gain any traction, and even if it did, the notion that 34 state legislatures would come to agreement on anything of substance in terms of a law or regulation to be repealed is laughable at best.

But that having been said, neither is this an intellectual exercise for those engaged. Let’s be clear and upfront on this – what we’re seeing here is an attempt to roll back 50 years of advances in the grand effort by the mainstream to have America live up to the ideals that Thomas Jefferson laid out in that letter of declaration that he wrote back in 1776.

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