For many years a group of Libertarians in New Hampshire have advocated for the Granite State to secede from the nation. This year the Legislature will formally debate the issue. Democrats and Republican leaders have condemned the idea of secession, but if 2020 and 2021 have taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. This article breaks down the mechanics and consequences of the unlikely proposal to form the nation of New Hampshire.
How to secede from the union
After the Civil War, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was, in fact, illegal for states to secede from the union. That means there is no approved process for a state to form its own nation.
That hasn’t discouraged seven Republican New Hampshire legislators from forming their own proposal to secede from the United States. They are sponsoring a constitutional amendment that states:
“New Hampshire peaceably declares independence from the United States and immediately proceeds as a sovereign nation. All other references to the United States in this constitution, state statutes, and regulations are nullified.”
A proposed state constitutional amendment must pass the House and Senate by a three-fifths (60%) majority. After that, two-thirds (67%) of voters must approve an amendment.
Given the high threshold for approval, the constitutional amendment to secede (CACR 32) has almost no chance of succeeding in the Legislature or among voters. However, having a public debate about an issue is often a good way to raise awareness and build support.
What would happen if NH seceded?
If two-thirds of Granite Staters ever did vote to form a new nation, the Civil War suggests that the feds would send the military to abolish any rebellious government.
However, many modern supporters of secession don’t believe the federal government would have the will to use military force. Instead, they believe New Hampshire would be allowed to exit the union peaceably, much like Great Britain exited the European Union.
As Brexit is demonstrating, however, an economic separation is still complex and potentially disruptive. Would New Hampshire set up a border control? Would New Hampshire residents lose their right to social security? Would New Hampshire need to form a Department of Defense? How would hospitals adjust to a loss of Medicaid payments? None of these questions are answered by a two-sentence constitutional amendment. There would probably have to be an entire constitutional convention to shape the new government.
(Coincidentally, New Hampshire voters get a chance every ten years to say if there should be a convention to redraft the state constitution. That question is scheduled to appear on the ballot again in 2022, regardless of what happens with the secession amendment. Learn more here.)
What could NH gain from secession?
Most of the supporters of secession generally object to what they perceive as overreach by the federal government. They point to recent COVID-19 policies, such as a moratorium on evictions and a vaccine mandate, and argue the federal government has betrayed the intentions of the Founding Fathers to limit federal powers. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, secession supporters objected to policies including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Paris Climate Agreement, the PATRIOT Act, and so on.
Many of the policies highlighted by secession supporters have worked their way through the courts or having pending court cases to test whether they violate the U.S. Constitution.
Supporters also argue that secession would save taxpayer dollars. In 2020 New Hampshire contributed a little over $12 billion in taxes to the federal government. That includes individual and business income taxes, payroll taxes, estate taxes, gift taxes, and excise taxes. Granite Staters would no longer have to pay these federal taxes.
Of course, New Hampshire would also lose out on federal funding if it seceded. About one-third of the New Hampshire state budget is made up of federal funds, contributing to everything from health care to highways. The recent coronavirus spending packages injected even more federal funds into the state for expanded broadband, rental assistance, water infrastructure, and more. Federal contracts and grants also go to cities, towns, colleges, and private businesses.
The trail of federal funds is complex enough that it is difficult to calculate the total impact secession might have on Granite State pocketbooks. A 2021 report from the Rockefeller Institute of Government found that on balance the federal government spends $1,363 more per person in New Hampshire than it receives in taxes. That report considered direct payments to individuals (such as social security and Medicare), grants (such as Medicaid and highway grants), government contracts, and pay to federal workers in New Hampshire. However, earlier years of the report found a much smaller net benefit to Granite Staters – just $310 per capita in 2020. The 2019 report found Granite Staters were actually losing $234 per capita to the federal government.
The counter-secession movement
While the constitutional amendment is a long shot, it seems that secession supporters are gaining momentum. In late December, #NationalDivorce was trending on Twitter.
However, while one group of legislators are sponsoring a constitutional amendment for New Hampshire to secede, nine Democrats and one Republican are sponsoring a bill (HB 1007) that would make a person ineligible for office if they advocate for secession or otherwise “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States.”
This bill is also a long shot, based on history. The New Hampshire Legislature has proven very reluctant to expel or discipline its members, preferring to wait for voters to decide on officials in every two-year election. The vast majority of legislators who support secessions are also Republicans, and it seems unlikely the narrow Republican majority in the House would vote to expel any of its members. Learn more about the debate over removing officials here.
Still, while secession becomes more present in mainstream debates, there is growing pushback from officials who argue that we must protect the democratic process laid out in the state and federal constitutions. If we disagree on a policy, the route to challenge it is the courts and the route to change it is the Legislature.
While the constitutional amendment to secede from the United States will almost certainly fail this year, voters in New Hampshire should consider asking 2022 candidates where they stand on the issue. State legislators aren’t just debating policy, these days; they’re debating whether the United States’ democratic experiment is worth saving.