We were all taught in school how government works. At least, that was the goal. I think it might be more accurate to say we were taught how government is supposed to work. The unfortunate truth is that the theory and the reality bear little resemblance to one another.
In a quote attributed to Mark Twain, he wisecracked, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” As it turns out, what we learned in school about how our government is supposed to work “just ain’t so.”
We were taught in school that we live in a representative republic in which the government is legally restricted to act only according to the Constitution, with the proper role of government clearly defined and governmental power strictly limited.
That is the theory.
But it just ain’t so.
The disconnect between how things are supposed to work as opposed to how they actually work is illustrated in a 3-minute scene in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield movie “Back to School.”
The clip is funny in the context of business, but the disconnect is not funny at all in the context of government.
The Founders gave a lot of thought to the ways in which citizens can protect themselves from the strong arm of the government. Their answer was to create a Constitution that strictly limited the actions of the government, then force all elected officials to publicly swear an oath they would preserve, protect, and defend it.
In Texas, there are a total of 27 statewide elected officials, 31 senators, and 150 representatives of the people in the House of Representatives. That is a grand total of 207 men and women who raised their right hand and swore the following oath of office:
IN THE NAME AND BY THE AUTHORITY OF THE STATE OF TEXAS, I, [insert name], do solemnly swear (or affirm), that I will faithfully execute the duties of the office of [insert office] of the State of Texas, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State, so help me God.
If only that were true.
You might be under the impression that because Texas officeholders swear an oath affirming allegiance to the Texas Constitution, they approve of, appreciate, and agree to abide by it.
But again, it just ain’t so.
I could give countless examples to prove that statement, but one will suffice.
We need look no further than the executive actions of Gov. Greg Abbott in 2020 alone; they were well outside strict limits of the powers granted to a Texas governor by the Texas Constitution. But who needs permission when no one is being held accountable?
The reality is that our elected officials have learned that they almost never have to answer for not following the Constitution or their oaths. If they aren’t held to account, why worry about it?
If Gov. Abbott wanted to stay within his constitutional restraints, he could easily have called a special session of the Legislature. He had plenty of time to do so. Instead, he repeatedly took power solely reserved for the Legislature.
In 25 days, as the next legislative session begins, we will find out if the Legislature will hold the governor accountable. Don’t hold your breath.
Unfortunately, the governor isn’t alone in disregarding his oath. Our representatives and senators have a long history of passing laws that are outside the power granted by the Constitution, and our judges act without regard to the clear language of the Constitution.
We should never forget that the Constitution was designed to protect innocent citizens from the overreach of government. It is not just important for citizens to hold their elected officials accountable to their oaths—it is our duty. It is also in our best interest.
In the same way that parents who fail to discipline their children are ultimately responsible for the actions of their misbehaving children, citizens who fail to hold elected officials accountable are ultimately responsible.
The answer is to start caring—to start watching their actions. But more than anything, the answer is to remember those actions during the next election, when the politicians inevitably lie, prevaricate, and hope you have a bad memory.
This is a commentary published with the author’s permission. If you wish to submit a commentary to Texas Scorecard, please submit your article to [email protected].