COLUMBIA | A politician told a crowd of several hundred at South Carolina's Statehouse that they didn't have to accept overreaching laws from an out-of-control federal government – arguing the Constitution says so.
“My objective over the next four years, every day I walk into that Senate chamber, is to find another way I can thwart federal encroachment,” the politician thundered to the cheers of the crowd.
It wasn't John C. Calhoun calling for South Carolina to stop collecting federal tariffs in the 1830s. It was state Sen. Tom Davis earlier this month, supporting a bill that would declare the new health care law supported by President Barack Obama illegal in the state. The bill, the subject of a “Nullify Obamacare” rally on the opening day for the Legislature, said anyone trying to enforce it would be guilty of a felony.
Health care isn't the only reason South Carolina lawmakers aren't happy with the federal government. Over the past two years, lawmakers have suggested the state should be able to ignore federal laws on gun control and light bulbs, mint its own currency and refuse all stimulus money.
The proposals haven't gotten a lot of traction in the Senate or across the hall and past the statue of Calhoun in the House. But they get a certain segment of Republican voters excited – a segment that will be critical to anyone mounting a primary challenge to Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2014. Davis has said Graham needs to go because he isn't conservative enough, but he hasn't committed to run himself.
“This state has a proud tradition of leaders stepping up and holding aloft the candle of liberty at a time when things are darkest,” said Davis, R-Beaufort. “We have to rise to that challenge now.”
Nullification is a loaded word in South Carolina. While various states considered it in this country's first few decades, the state was the first to push the federal government to the brink. In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson threatened to send the entire U.S. Army to South Carolina if the state nullified a tariff that many residents felt protected Northern industry at the expense of Southern farmers.
Jackson said if one drop of blood was shed, he would hang the first supporter of nullification he found in the first tree he passed. The issue split Jackson and Calhoun, who was his vice president in his first term, but things simmered down after a compromise tariff was reached.
In 2013, the issue remains dissatisfaction with the federal government, even if the root causes are different. Anger over federal regulations that ended manufacturing of incandescent 100-watt bulbs led to the proposal that those types of bulbs made and sold in South Carolina might be exempt.
The gun bill is similar, proposing firearms manufactured and then sold exclusively in South Carolina be exempt from any new federal gun control laws. It does limit the firepower of the weapons, so a South Carolina-made cannon or surface-to-air missile would still be illegal.
Making and selling the items only in South Carolina is critical, supporters say, to avoid triggering the interstate commerce clause that would allow federal law to usurp state law.
For many at the rally earlier this month, the fact that Obama won 51 percent of the vote nationally (and 44 percent of the vote in South Carolina) meant that it is much more urgent to take action now.
Dick LoBue, a 76-year-old retired utility worker from New York who moved to Myrtle Beach more than a decade ago, is excited to see the idea of nullification return. He brought several homemade signs to the rally, including one that called Obama a “self-ordained socialist, communist dictator.”
“We won't go without a fight. As Patrick Henry said, `give me liberty, or give me death,“’ said LoBue, a member of the Carolina Patriots, which split from a tea party group a few years ago.
And the federal government is in such a mess of debt and is so unpopular that officials likely will have their hands tied if any state starts nullifying laws, said state Sen. Lee Bright, who is a sponsor of many of these bills.
“They are 16 trillion in the hole. I don't think they are going to push their power around too much,” said Bright, R-Roebuck.
The federal government is no stranger in South Carolina. It has major posts for the Air Force, Army and Marines. It also is set to contribute $8.7 billion to the state's budget, while $6.1 billion comes from taxes and other general state revenue.
The bills tweaking the federal government likely won't pass. Nullification should have been settled after Abraham Lincoln's vision of federal power won the Civil War 150 years ago, said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford.
But the nullification talk does create problems getting things done at the Statehouse, said Rutherford, D-Columbia.
“It's not serious talk. They suggest one thing openly to their constituents who bite at the red meat, but they live in a separate place. This just kills any chance at having a conversation or reaching an agreement,” Rutherford said
Supporters of nullification say the federal government never prohibited it, even after the Civil War. They say even the U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the new health care law doesn't mean much. They point out the justices have changed their minds before, citing the segregation-supporting 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, and the segregation-ending 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
The nullification supporters attract a sometimes unwelcome subset. Also at the rally was the state director of the League of the South, holding up a sign that read “If nullification fails, try secession.”
Robert Hayes, who attended the rally at the capitol, said South Carolina has bucked supervision since it successfully demanded to be separated from North Carolina decades before the American Revolution.
“I think it is in the genetic makeup of South Carolinians,” Hayes said. “We simply like to stand up to any government that oppresses our freedoms.”