Behind the Lines
INMATES OF THE TEXAS DEPARTMENT of Corrections have made 181 new desks for about $34 a desk. Rockford Furniture Associates of Austin has fashioned matching chairs for $180 a chair. A new electronic voting board has been installed for $33,500 ($200 more than the total cost for the chairs). These additions will allow both houses of the Texas legislature to sit jointly in the House chambers when they begin their duties January 8 as a constitutional convention. Once they have finished their work, the chairs and desks will be sold and the old ones returned to position to await the 1975 regular legislative session.
The chairs and desks should be sold now. The legislature has no business sitting as a constitutional convention. Its members are unsuited for the task, they don’t really want to do it, and they will be distracted if not downright influenced by the immediate and pressing demands of their reelection campaigns, which will be in process at the same time and which are going to seem a lot more important to many of them. The constitution is too important to us to be entrusted to the legislature, which by its very nature as a political body is incapable of producing a document above daily politics. The legislature has only one course of action consistent with the interests of the people of Texas: adopt the draft constitution as written and go home.
It is possible to urge the legislature to accept the draft and go home because the constitutional revision committee has produced a constitution which by and large is a sensible, workable document, a significant improvement over our current constitution, and, if history is any guide, far better than what the legislature is likely to produce after months of tinkering. The 37 members of the commission represent a fair cross-section of Texas, their proceedings were open and reasonably constructive, citizens were allowed access and input, and the overall document reflects a gratifying awareness of the distinction between what should be in a constitution and what should be open to governmental action and legislation.
There are areas where the draft constitution could be strengthened to reflect the needs of a modern, urban state (see “We the people…”, page 50). It takes a certain political maturity to accept an admittedly imperfect docu- ment as the best which can be hoped for under the circumstances. If, however, the legislators can put aside their expanding lists of proposed changes, then we can perhaps realize the benefits Alexander Hamilton pointed out when urging the adoption of the Constitution of the United States as written: “The injury which may possibly be done by defeating a few good (amendments) will be amply compensated by the advantage of preventing a number of bad ones.”
The history of the Texas legislature is a history of susceptibility to special interests and sacred cows, a history which guarantees that bad amendments will outnumber good ones. Inroads have already been made into the draft constitution by the highway lobby and local government officials. Those inroads will likely be deepened and expanded to include a host of other special interests, which will begin coming out of the woodwork when the constitution is at stake. When the chips are down, whether on mass transit or the environment, on metro government or ethics, on taxation or on spending, the special interests win, or at least don’t lose. We cannot permit the special interests to use the legislature to engrave their privileged status still further into the fundamental law of Texas.
We are stuck with an alarmingly outmoded and ineffectual state government today because the constitution has been used as the battleground for issues which should have been worked out in the give and take of the normal legislative process. In less than 100 years our constitution has been amended 218 times, or an average of over four amendments for every biennial meeting of the state legislature. In comparison, the Constitution of the United States has been amended 26 times, although it is twice as old. The reason is simple. Our national constitution has been the framework for the governing process; in Texas our constitution has been involved in the governing process itself. Our constitution has been used where statutory law or administrative action should be used: to respond to specific needs and not as the framework which determines how our government should respond. Until our constitution is separated once and for all from the legislative process, Texas government will continue to be a hodgepodge of entrenched special interests and inefficient government.
We have no confidence in the legislature’s ability to establish this separation once it begins to tamper with the constitution. It would be far better for them to propose what changes they feel are necessary in the course of their regular 1975 session. Then voters could decide on amendments one by one, rather than having to face the possibility of voting against the entire constitution because the legislature has botched it up. Significantly, the draft constitution proposes that future constitutional conventions should be composed of special delegates, and not legislators.
The legislators should accept the draft constitution and set about their pressing business: running for office. We should be able to use the election campaign to tell our representatives what we think of how they have served our interests in the give-and-take of practical politics. Elections by their very nature are affairs of the moment. Politicians live in the present; it is unfair in the midst of an election campaign to expect them suddenly to become statesmen. Having political opponents examining one’s every move is not the ideal situation for a political officeholder to consider the higher principles of a political community. The legislature will have only itself to blame if it makes our constitution into campaign fodder. We will be all be better off if they adopt the draft constitution, submit it to the voters, and go home.