The topic of discussion for this Constitution Monday concerns the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment. This topic becomes popular whenever the Senate does something stupid like not repealing Obamacare, and the call for its repeal came again after Senator John McCain (R-AZ) cast the final, deciding vote against repealing Obamacare.
Article One of the Constitution of the United States establishes the legislative branch of the federal government, otherwise known as the U.S. Congress. Section 3 establishes the Senate. Clause 1 and 2 are as follows:
The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.
Immediately after they shall be assembled in Consequence of the first Election, they shall be divided as equally as may be into three Classes. The Seats of the Senators of the first Class shall be vacated at the Expiration of the second Year, of the second Class at the Expiration of the fourth Year, and of the third Class at the Expiration of the sixth Year, so that one third may be chosen every second Year; and if Vacancies happen by Resignation, or otherwise, during the Recess of the Legislature of any State, the Executive thereof may make temporary Appointments until the next Meeting of the Legislature, which shall then fill such Vacancies.
The Seventeenth Amendment was established at the beginning of the Progressive era of our nation. It supersedes Article 1, Section 3, Clauses 1 and 2, and changes the procedures for filling vacancies.
The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislatures.
When vacancies happen in the representation of any state in the Senate, the executive authority of such state shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies, provided that the legislature of any state may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.
This amendment was proposed by Congress in 1912 and was ratified on April 8, 1913, after it was ratified by three-fourths (36) of the state legislatures. It took effect nationwide in the November 1914 election but was used in a couple of states at earlier times.
Two questions come to mind: (1) What was the need for the Seventeenth Amendment?
(2) Why did 36 state legislatures voluntarily give up their authority to elect Senators?
Seth Masket https://www.vox.com/mischiefs-of-faction/2017/8/1/16069872/repealing-17th-amendment-bad-idea published an article with his answers to the above questions. He says that this amendment was one of four amendments (income tax, direct election of senators, Prohibition, and women’s suffrage) that were ratified in the period 1913-1920. This was the beginning of the Progressive era that ushered in a reformation of the government. This reformation apparently “in response to a great many abuses and corruption cases dating from the late 1800s. Political parties were seen as overly strong and corrupt, and as exerting undue control over governmental processes…. The direct election of senators … was seen as a possible remedy.”
Masket claims that many legislators did not want the responsibility of picking senators. It “paralyzed legislative activity” in some states and “contributed to the polarization of the chamber.” Legislatures outsourced the election of senators to the people much like they outsourced “redistricting powers to nonpartisan commissions.” He summarizes with the following statement.
The 17th Amendment was embraced by legislators and the public as a way to both reduce corruption and take a divisive issue off legislators’ agendas. It’s not at all clear that state legislators want this task back, and there’s little evidence that the public knows or cares much about this effort.
Masket concludes that there is little to be gained by repealing the Seventeenth Amendment and maybe more problems that it is worth.
Also, unlike many Progressive reforms, it’s hard to detect many unintended, negative consequences of the 17th Amendment. Indeed, one of the surprising things about this amendment was how little effect it had on political outcomes…. There were a few modest effects – post-amendment senators were less likely to emanate from political dynasties, and turnover was a bit higher. But it didn’t dramatically transform American politics.
I do not know much about Seth Masket or if he can be trusted. I do trust conservative Allen West who published an opposing point of view about the Seventeenth Amendment. He thinks that it is time for us to have a national discussion about this amendment in order for the “people to understand what it is, and why we changed the original vision of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay.” West shares an important civics lesson for Americans, one that should be understood, if not appreciated.
If you haven’t been a student of civics, well, the 17th Amendment changed the way U.S. senators were elected. The Founding Fathers in their utter brilliance had varied the means by which we were entitled to elect representation in America. The House of Representatives … is based strictly on population. And if you want to be able to affect a change with the federal government, every two years you could do that by popular vote. The presidency … was determined by popular vote, but there’s an electoral college that ensures we have a representative democracy, not a pure democracy – a big difference. … [This made a big difference in the 2016 election.] … But the Founders didn’t want heavily-populated areas to decide our chief executive – and this is done every four years….
It’s with the Senate that the Founders had a different vision. It was viewed as the upper legislative chamber, and … each state would have two senators. The difference was that the Founders established that the senators were elected via state legislatures. They believed these individuals, with six-year terms, would be responsive to their states. However, a movement began around the turn of the century to allow the people to vote for senators too. This passed in 1913 during the first American progressive era. It was then believed that state legislatures were too corrupt to have that responsibility – although now many would say the same thing about our federal legislature: the “swamp.”
Imagine if those GOP senators who blocked the repeal of Obamacare could be recalled by their state legislatures, if they could be subject to a vote of “no confidence” and be removed! How differently would these senators act – or any senator? It would certainly preclude the arrogance and defiance of what has become a very lucrative club – not of citizen servants but of those who believe their political position entitles them to lord over us with no retribution, enabling them to become career politicians….
Our U.S. Senate is not a House of Lords – albeit, they tend to believe they are…. But it’s time we assess the repeal of the 17th Amendment, and give state legislatures the ability to elect, and recall, their senators. I just have to ask, if the 17th Amendment didn’t exist, would Arizona, Maine, Alaska, West Virginia, and a few others be looking to replace their current senators?
Masket almost had me persuaded that there was no need to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment. Then I studied West’s civics lesson. The Progressive movement is all about controlling the people. The income tax amendment takes money from the people. Prohibition outlawed alcohol consumption – but was repealed. I do not partake of alcoholic beverages, but I support the right of other people to drink responsibly. The Women’s Suffrage act was the only one of the four amendments to actually bestow more freedom – although I realize that some men still wish women did not vote.
The Seventeenth Amendment took away the right of the people to recall their senators, and repealing this amendment would give this power back to the state legislatures. This idea greatly appeals to me because I have been displeased with Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski for quite some time. She campaigns as a conservative, but she votes as a liberal. She is more supportive of Democrat causes than those of the Republicans. As two examples, she supports Planned Parenthood, and she voted against repealing Obamacare. Neither of her positions is conservative. Let’s do away with the Seventeenth Amendment and help to clean the swamp.