Free Markets, Free People

Repealing the Seventeenth Amendment

George Will argues we should repeal the Seventeenth Amendment.  I doubt it will happen–too many people are convinced of the Populist notion that the more direct the democracy, the better.  But I’ve been arguing for years that this measure would restore a great measure of federalism to the US, and that we would generally benefit from such a change.

Doug Mataconis of Below the Beltway isn’t so sure.  He writes,

As I’ve noted before, it’s a provocative argument, but I think there’s something missing:

My take on the subject is this — from a procedural point of view the 17th Amendment is certainly one of the factors that has made the expansion of Federal power, and the erosion of Federalism, more easy to accomplish. Returning to direct election of Senators *might* have a positive impact, but that will only happen if the Senators elected have a proper understanding of their role under the Constitution.

And if the state legislators appointing them have that same understanding.

Given the political climate in America today, having Senators who are beholden to the whims and wishes of state legislators is unlikely to produce a better breed in the Upper House than having Senators who are beholden to the whims and wishes of voters.

In some sense, repealing the 17th Amendment involves turning back the clock in more ways than one. We can return to the procedural methods that the Framers first put in place, but that doesn’t mean that the philosophy that will guide the Senate will change in any significant respect.

I can’t comment on whether we’d get a “better breed”, but the procedural change would change the practice, if not the philosophy, of senators.  As I argue in the comments, the purpose of many of the checks and balances in the Constitution of the early republic was to have people in power answer to those who were jealous of their own power. Repealing the Seventeenth wouldn’t cure all ills, but it would help.

For example, the federal government has extended its power over state and local matters by using its superior funding power to provide goodies, and attaching strings to that money.

If we posit that state legislators want to arrogate more power to themselves, then–given the power–they will resist those strings. US Senators, realizing that their appointment to the Senate (and all the attendant benefits) requires pleasing the state legislators, will avoid attaching those strings. They don’t need to understand anything except who’s buttering their bread.

Let’s say that state legislators still like the idea of getting federal money without having to levy their own taxes. Well, if the Senate tries to appropriate no-strings-attached money for the states, naturally the House and President will resist. They don’t want to levy taxes and receive no controlling benefit in return.

A smaller number might be ideologically committed to using the superior federal power of taxation to fund these goodies, but not having strings attached to federal money would dull the incentive.

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12 Responses to Repealing the Seventeenth Amendment

  • Definitely, even obviously, it should be repealed.  Most preferably replaced, but certainly repealed if that’s all we can manage.

    With respect to the benefits to federalism, there is no need to stagger Senator’s terms, and no benefit to their serving fixed terms.  Let each state house pick one–unicameral legislatures pick two–the state’s executive picks one, the most senior of any state’s three senators present casts votes for any senator from that state not present, and all senators serve at the pleasure of the entity that appointed them.

    Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp

  • The original Constitution kept a significant distance from the populist notion of letting voters have much influence. The reasoning is pretty good. Voters tend to be emotional, easily swayed by rhetoric, ungrounded in priorities, unfamiliar with the functions of their government, and (as seen most recently) largely motivated by greed.

    Unfortunately repeal of the 17th wouldn’t get us back to better government. The fact is that the state legislatures are no longer repositories of rational debate, intellectual discussion and knowledgeable dedicated public servants. They are the breeding ground of the pandering venality which characterizes Congress.

    Maybe better would be to revert to the pure essence of Art II, section 2 which describes the method of choosing the President. Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of a citizen casting a vote. The Electoral College chooses. They are appointed by the state legislatures. They are free to vote their conscience. But there is no general electorate involved. Take that Al Gore.

    • My argument doesn’t require state legislatures to be “repositories of rational debate, intellectual discussion and knowledgeable dedicated public servants”.  It requires only that they be jealous of their own power.

  • Given the political climate in America today, having Senators who are beholden to the whims and wishes of state legislators is unlikely to produce a better breed in the Upper House than having Senators who are beholden to the whims and wishes of voters.

    Actually, directly elected Senators are probably more in touch with lobbyists than voters.  And being elected by the state legislatures gives us a better chance of seeing incumbents losing.

    I’m not sure there’s a downside to repealing the 17th Amendment.

  • Here I agree at least with the position of repealing the amendment and strengthening federalism.  While some may think states aren’t engaged in “rational debate,” I suggest that people who say that consider their perspective rational, while they define other perspectives as not rational.  Very  convenient, but that kind of view is, well, irrational.

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  • Wow. Voters , those emotional irrational beings, cannot be trusted to vote for a Senator, but they are rational and calm enough to vote for the state legislators who vote for the Senators. Okay.

    Perhaps a reason for the original method of having the state legislators choose Senators and direct election of  Representatives had something to do with the difficulty of communicating and electioneering  over an entire state versus in one Congressional district. Practicality vs. idealogy.

    • It abjectly  had nothing to do with that.  It had nothing to do with trusting or not trusting the voters.  It was solely to give state houses a restraining hand on the national government.

      That’s it, and was a sufficient purpose it should have been maintained.

      Read a little.

      Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp

  • Since it requires a 2/3’s vote of the House and Senate to even send an amendment to the states, it is hard to think of these professional politicians voting to reduce their power and security.   The only other way is a Constitutional convention and that has every possibility of turning into a mess we would really hate.


    • You may be right about the difficulty.  But it was hard to think of state legislators giving up their only voice in the national government in the first place, and they did it. 

      If at least 38 state legislatures signal that they’re on board, I imagine it will be difficult for Congress to resist.  The House would be the bigger hurdle, I would think.

      If a Constitutional Convention is called by 2/3 of legislatures, that too would be hard for at least the Senate to resist.

  • And yet the state legislatures, jealous of their power and prerogatives, voted to ratify the XVII amendment. How odd.
    I also find it odd  that you all have such confidence in the fact that the interests of  state legislators are the same as those of the citizens. Much evidence to the contrary exists. Why give more power to them?

    The fact that Erb supports your position is not helping.

    • Re: the Seventeenth Amendment being ratified: I didn’t say that the incentive couldn’t be overcome.

      And I find it odd that you have such confidence that the interests of the federal government are the same as those of the citizens of your state (and county, and city, etc.).  Much evidence to the contrary exists.  Why allow them to keep all that power instead of transferring it down?