Today I visited the Texas Congress. For various reasons this body of state government is fascinating.
First of all it resides within an enormous capitol, which is, completely in accordance with Texan style, a little bit higher than the famous federal capitol in Washington D.C. The building is located on a hill in the Middle of Austin. It towers above the city and it can be seen from every direction.
The capitol is surrounded by war monuments, most of them in remembrance of the American Civil War (1861-1865). This war broke out when seven southern states, including Texas, seceded from the United States and set up the ‘Confederate States of America’ (CSA). The US government, headed by Abraham Lincoln, did not accept the secession and considered the CSA illegal. After a bloody war, the southern states were forced back into the Union. Despite the loss, the monuments stand proud and tell the visitor that the state of Texas and the United States government have no easy historical relationship.
The visitor who goes inside the capitol needs to undergo an interesting Texan style security check. The check point has two lanes: one for those who carry a pistol and one for those who do not. I myself, belonging to the latter group, had to walk through a metal detector. I had to take off my belt, show my keys and my coins etc. Had I carried a handgun none of this would have been necessary. Citizens who exercise their second amendment right can walk right through! Apparently the Texans reckon that those who bear arms are patriotic citizens who, self-evidently, should not be bothered.
Also from a constitutional perspective the Texas Congress is special. Whereas most contemporary legislatures are continuously in session, the Texas branch is only allowed to convene for 140 days every two years. This constitutional ‘check’ is highly exceptional, just three other American states have biennial legislative sessions. And does it work? Most democrats claim it doesn’t. Republicans tend to defend the rule. A former senator clarifies: ‘the citizens of Texas inherently don’t trust government’.
And that is perhaps what everything in this capital is trying to tell the visitor: the state is not the same thing as the government. The Texans love their ‘Lone Star’ flag, their history and their special customs but they are skeptical about the idea of government. Across the other side of the Atlantic pond, people often claim that this is irrational. Yet the Texans I talked with simply reply that they don’t understand why Europeans put so much trust in government. Whoever may be right, what remains interesting is the contrast between the two ways of thinking. It is political philosophy in practice.