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checks and balances


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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