Thursday, October 7, 2010

The 17th amendment heresy

A sure way to get all the wookie-suiters to shake their heads, bowcasters, and Gasden Flags in solemn agreement is to suggest the repeal of the 17th amendment, and returning the appointment of Senators to the state legislatures. After all, direct election short-circuits the intent of the Founders to make Senators advocates of their states, and insulate them from the whim of the Mob and the pressures of campaigning. If we return to the days of legislative appointment, the states will reclaim the powers they have allowed the Federal government to usurp, the states will find allies in the Senate in stopping further encroachment, &c.

Sounds like a plan, right – return the Senate to a more deliberative body, insulated from the Mob, and able to concentrate on the mechanics of governance; with the best interests of their States in the foreground, lest they be turfed out by their own legislature. As Zell Miller put it before retiring, “ But can you imagine those dreadful unfunded mandates being put on the States or a homeland security bill being torpedoed by the unions if Senators were still chosen by and responsible to the State legislatures?”

For the sake of argument, I’m going to ignore the difficulty of passing an amendment. It’s at least theoretically possible for such an amendment to be a extra-partisan issue, I suppose, and garner the necessary national support. It won’t matter in the end. Repealing the 17th amendment will not stop direct elections of senators, and it won’t help the problem of senators being beholden to special interests.

Here’s the two dirty little secrets of the 17th Amendment. First secret: the first Senator chosen by popular vote was elected in 1906, 7 years before the ratification of the 17th amendment and 5 years before the submission of the amendment to the states for ratification. Oregon pioneered the method (essentially a referendum binding on the legislature), but other states followed. This method could be used again if the 17th amendment was repealed, leaving the states to continue directly electing senators if they so choose. And you couldn’t stop it without an unacceptable level of meddling in state sovereignty.

Second dirty little secret: the 17th amendment was, at least in part, a reaction to the corruption and scandals of the time; not to mention inaction on the part of legislatures that were still appointing senators without consultation. Surprisingly enough, state legislatures are just another special interest, and it’s cheaper to bribe a legislature than an electorate…

Repeal of the 17th amendment is no panacea. It took most of a century of slow Progressing to get here, it’ll take time to get back. It’s going to be hard and dirty work, full of compromise, half-measures, and politicians. Put together enough half-measures, though, and you can go places…


  1. Any solution involving states' rights also has to assume that the states will be _willing_ to stand up to the feds once they're able to. At the moment, that doesn't seem like a given. Part of the slow progress back has to involve changing the culture of state governments.

    Not to mention, far too many Americans today are completely uncritical of voting as social policy, to the extent that some seem to think all governments are legitimate if they've been elected, and that omnipotent governments are fine "because we can always vote them out if we don't like what they do". These people seem never to even have _heard_ of the tyranny of the majority.

  2. The states are willing to dance to the Fed's tune because the Feds are paying the piper.


Please keep it civil