The constitution of the state of Texas, my friends, is not what you carry to the beach for light summer reading. Light? Not at 90,000 words and 377 amendments. As Dr. Johnson said of Paradise Lost, “No man ever wished it longer.” Yet longer it gets, election year by election year, as the sovereign voters tack on more elaborate changes.

The constitution was written in 1875. Texas had finally struck off the shackles of Reconstruction. A fractious mood was upon the political leadership; Whatever those damyankees and carpetbaggers had done wasn’t going to happen again, you could go to the bank on that. Texas acquired perhaps the most strictly controlled governmental structure in the United States, which it retains to this day.

And wouldn’t you know it? That isn’t good enough for various progressive reformers who want Texas to scratch up a new constitution for a new century and millennium.

The legislature—which, under present constitutional stipulations, hadn’t met since May 1997—has before it an earnest proposal for a document that would achieve just this lofty end. It would clear away impediments to dynamic action, as Capt. Henry Shreve over a century ago cleared the snags inhibiting travel on the Red River. The proposed new constitution would emphasize efficiency and Getting Things Done. It would free us from dalliance and indecision. (Pssst: This dog is going nowhere. But what an opportunity it gives us to talk about the joys of constrained government and the hard work such constraint always requires.)

Texas made its last pass at constitutional revision in the mid-70’s. Then, as now, the watchword was efficient government for changed circumstances. In other words, we don’t live on the post-Reconstruction frontier anymore, why not start acting like it? Perhaps for this reason: Constitutions don’t embody just circumstances; more to the point, they embody principles brought to bear on circumstances. When you achieve deliberately, or luck into, the right set of principles, it behooves you to grip them tightiy. Texas voters, in repudiating constitutional change a quarter of a century ago, decided they liked well enough the small-government principles that allowed for freedom and civility. That’s going to happen again in 1999.

What did the men of 1875 actually do? As the historian T.R. Fehrenbach elucidates, they

made it almost impossible for government in Texas to be burdensome or onerous in the future. . . . [The convention’s] first act was to reduce its own per them allowance to five dollars. Its second was to vote down a motion to have proceedings printed, because a public stenographer cost ten dollars a day. . . .


This was an anti-government instrument. . . . The dominant spirit was to allow the state government no real latitude to act. The powers of the Legislature were much reduced. . . . The executive was equally, or even more, curtailed. . . . None of these changes was controversial; they were what the people wanted.

And still sense they want. Demand for big government in Texas—nowadays our second-most populous state—is nil, save in the earnest reforming circles that cry constitutional reform to life at regular intervals.

Working immediately against reform is the perception that there isn’t much wrong with Texas: at least not much that governmental muscle is likely to ameliorate. The economy has made the transition nicely from oil dependency to diversity; high-tech and computer-related industries are particularly strong. (With it all, Texas remains the nation’s biggest oil-producing state.) The treasury is in surplus.

What exactly is government supposed to do for us? Improve the government schools? In fact, these were demonstrably better 30 years ago, when government was even smaller and cheaper than now.

Over a century and a quarter, one would expect modifications in the arrangements those hard-bitten old frontiersmen devised. Modifications there have been—but sparing in scope and aggressiveness. The reason that the Texas constitution is 90,000 words long is that even minor changes—e.g., abolishing the public weigher’s office in so-and-so county—have to be approved by the whole electorate. The framers, to say the least, didn’t favor unadvised action. Constitutional amendments take up more printed space than the constitutional text. Yet, apart from boredom (nobody ever reads the thing), harm to the voters is undetectable.

The legislature, as our forefathers ordained, meets five months of every 24, except when a special session is called for one purpose or another. (The purpose must always be specified.) Under the carpetbaggers, there had been annual sessions. No one wanted this to happen again. As one contemporary Texan explained, “[T]he more the damn legislature meets, the more Goddamned bills and taxes it passes.” The common wisdom of Texans, now as a century ago, seems to hold that legislators are like most houseguests —the faster they get out, the better.

Legislators are notoriously, and deliberately, underpaid. The voters have final say-so on legislative pay, which, the last time I checked, was $600 a month, plus $95 per diem during the five-month session. This is the same state, let it not be forgotten, that in 1875 wouldn’t tolerate paying a stenographer. The obviously old-fashioned idea is that lawmakers are there to serve, not to be served. Naturally, this circumstance does not cause seats to languish for lack of occupants. The budget for office expense is generous enough, and a lengthy legislative career—there are, perhaps incongruously, no term limits—fits a man for service in the large and extensive corporate lobby. The lobbyists have been around forever. They do not exactly control the legislative flow in Austin, but the lawmaker who thinks they don’t matter has several more thinks coming.

Texas has produced its share of dynamic and/or effective governors—Jim Hogg, Allan Shivers, John Connally, Ann Richards—but they don’t get that way by the exercise of raw power. A Texas governor enjoys minimal power—not even the ability to appoint a cabinet. He may propose, suggest, recommend, wheedle, propagandize, but no one has to listen. All he can do, basically, to advance his objectives—beyond talk, of course—is sign and veto bills (he has line-item power) and fill up state commissions with his supporters. The independently elected lieutenant governor presides over the 31-member senate, shaping legislation with a vigor denied the governor. This is the sort of point that badly vexes the reformers, one of whom (a Republican) complained: “We happen to believe that Texas doesn’t need a government that has one of the weakest governors in the United States.” Oh, really?

Texas judges are elected, from trial court to appellate level. Now and again, this causes confusion. Haifa century ago, an exceptionally upright Supreme Court justice with a hoity-toity-sounding name—W. St. John Garwood—was almost unseated by a previously unsung opponent bearing the down-home moniker of Jefferson Smith (the name of the Jimmy Stewart character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Thirty years later, vaguely recognizing a then-familiar political name, voters seated on the same court a hugely underqualified and thitherto unknown lawyer named Don Yarborough. (Ralph Yarborough had been the senior U.S. senator from Texas until his defeat in 1970.)

There has long existed in the state a good-government lobby that argues for appointed judges—at any rate, for appointed judges who “run against their record” at the next election—but the lobby makes no headway. Voters may not work much at electing their judges, but they appreciate the opportunity. Lately, judicial control has tipped to the Republicans, who are less likely to change the present state of affairs than to strike a gold medal to Hillary Clinton.

State government, in other words, despite population explosion and cultural and economic shifts, is not much more visible in Texas than it was when the constitution was written. Sales taxes—as much as 8.25 percent in the cities—are high, but there is no income tax. In fact, voters recently put into the constitution a Gordian prohibition of such a tax. Yes, the knot could be sliced through, but only with great difficulty and, still less likely, political courage.

Why the good-government lobby would think Texans want more visible and active government is not easy to discern. The pressure (which is slight indeed) comes from Republicans as well as Democrats. The proposed streamlining—there would be but 19,000 words in the new document—results from no more than a feeling that we could somehow do better with a new constitution. Only because the Democratic chairman of the state house appropriations committee and an influential Republican senator sponsor the proposal does it get attention. At that, it doesn’t get much.

The Republican, Bill Ratliff, says of the old document, “Our current constitution was written by people in the 19th century who were terrified of centralized government.” He thinks such a judgment damns rather than commends—as if, all of a sudden, Texans had opened their eyes to the blessings, previously hidden, of centralized government.

Centralization is, in fact, old hat. The centralizers are on the run. Open markets and deregulation are the modern trends, batted by backlashes, to be sure, as with Germany’s new left-wing government and our own Justice Department’s attempt to break up Microsoft.

The dynamic creativity of the marketplace, even so, is something government can’t get its arms around. The marketplace is too fast, too quick-witted, for bureaucrats. Government rarely has the slightest idea what consumer-taxpayers want and need. The framers of 1875, who disdained and hated centralization, may have worn, unwittingly, the prophets mantle.

The proposed new document has its points. It might, for example, serve the public interest to exempt state voters from the duty of saying yea or nay when some county wants to abolish a low-grade office. But alterations of this sort could be effected just by timely changes in the present constitution. The wisdom of the ages remains in the yellowed old document that guides Texas’s destiny. A rural sage who holds an important national ecclesiastical office got it right in a letter he recently wrote me:

Texans don’t want government. We damn sure don’t want efficient government. The taxpayers in the county I came from were very clear about what they wanted. They wanted low taxes, good roads, fair schools, low taxes, vicious law enforcement, and low taxes.

Dadgum if their own politicians are going to talk Texans into surrendering such signal, and un-20th-century, blessings!