Why Aren’t Texas Politicians Standing Up for Texas Landowners?

Rio Grande backyard

Joe Raedle/Getty

Leonel Calderon stands next to the Rio Grande river, which marks the boundary between the United States and Mexico, as it flows past the back yard of his home on January 18, 2019 in Del Rio.

If you spent any time on social media yesterday, there’s a good chance you saw that viral video of Colorado senator Michael Bennet laying into Ted Cruz on the floor of the U.S. Senate for failing to protect South Texans from President Trump’s desire to build a wall on their land. Cruz had just made the argument that the Senate should give Trump $5.7 billion in funding for a border wall so the government shutdown could be lifted and Coast Guard employees could get paid. (Earlier today, the shutdown ended, at least temporarily, minus the $5.7 billion appropriation.) Bennet, with unusual fervor for a Senate debate, denounced the Texas senator’s “crocodile tears,” recalling that back in 2013 Cruz himself led a government shutdown that had catastrophic consequences for Colorado when it was inundated with floods. And then he laid into Cruz on the matter of eminent domain. Bennet would never encourage the federal government to take his constituents’ land, he said. Why was Cruz doing so?

It was a reminder that one of the strange things about the Trump era is how many events are funhouse-mirror images of events that transpired during Barack Obama’s presidency. In the last few years, we’ve watched Republicans relearn to love executive power and Democrats learn to hate it again. The party that scorned Obama’s negotiations with Iran as cowardly and weak is cheering Trump’s handholding with the supreme leader of North Korea. And, as the Bennet v. Cruz bout reminded us as well, the fight over Trump’s border wall bears a strong similarity to another recent attempt by the federal government to seize private land in Texas—one that played out a lot differently.

In 2009 the Bureau of Land Management published a series of surveys in the Federal Register that laid claim to small strips of land between the medial line of the Red River—the invisible line down the middle of the waterway that constitutes the border between Texas and Oklahoma—and the river’s south bank. A mundane turning of the federal bureaucracy, one might think, except that the BLM and Texas landowners south of the river happened to disagree pretty vigorously on where the south bank of the river actually was, and the difference between the two put the ownership of a lot of privately owned land in doubt.

The substance of the matter was labyrinthine, but the political reality of the fight was simple. Here was a federal agency under the purview of Barack Obama coming to Texas to take land from ranchers. The headlines wrote themselves, and politicians and pundits were happy to weigh in. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin, launched a major effort to fight the feds in court. Texas elected officials, from Governor Greg Abbott on down to minor lawmakers like state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, toured the area and pledged to fight them too. Abbott told the agency to “come and take it” in a fundraising email, recalling the Battle of Gonzales, and Stickland expressed hope that the situation didn’t blow up into a “Nevada-type situation,” with landowners taking up arms. For a moment, that seemed as if it might happen: militia members came and rallied on some of the disputed land, employing superheated rhetoric, and the FBI followed them.

The immense political pressure worked—after reducing its claim, the BLM dropped the matter entirely when President Donald Trump took office. The lesson, hard won by the feds, was that Texans could be brought to revolt even in defense of thin strips of inaccessible river scrubland.

But let’s fast forward a few years and jump from the northern riverine boundary of the state to the southern. Texas politicians may well have been right to come to…

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