Skip to comments.Repeal 17th Amendment
Posted on 09/24/2002 8:35:46 AM PDT by Dick Bachert
THE SEVENTEENTH AMENDMENT: SHOULD IT BE REPEALED? Why The Direct Election Of Senators May Have Been A Serious Mistake, And One That Helps Explain The Supreme Court's States' Rights Views By JOHN W. DEAN ---- Friday, Sep. 13, 2002
Federalism - the allocation and balancing of power between state and federal government - has emerged as a central concern of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Slowly, but steadily, the Rehnquist Court has been cutting back federal powers, and protecting state's rights.
Many have wondered what the Court is doing. Why are the Court's five conservatives - the Chief Justice himself, along with Associate Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas - creating this new jurisprudence of federalism?
The answer is simple: they are seeking to fill a void in our constitutional structure, a problem created early in the Twentieth Century. The problem began when, in the name of "democracy," we tinkered with the fundamental structure of the Constitution by adopting the Seventeenth Amendment.
The Amendment calls for direct election of U.S. Senators. It's a change that has in fact proved anything but democratic. And it is a change whose aftermath may haunt the Twenty-first Century.
Concerns About Federalism, Especially Post-September 11
Divisions of power are rooted in our Constitution. Experience had taught the Framers the dangers of concentrations of ruling authority, resulting in their ingenious template of checks and balances, with divisions and distributions of power.
Ultimate power in a democracy resides with the people. We are not a pure democracy, however, but rather a confederated republic (one that features, as well, county and local political subdivisions).
Thus, while there is national sovereignty, there is also state sovereignty. Power has been so divided and spread for one reason: to provide for and protect the highest sovereignty - that of each individual citizen.
Only fools reject the wisdom of this founding principle of defusing power. Yet from the outset there has been debate regarding the appropriate allocation and balancing of these powers. The debate has focussed on not only whether a particular matter should be dealt with at the state versus the national level, but also on how these allocations are adjusted from time to time.
Of late, for example, along with laments for those who tragically lost their lives during the September 11th terrorist attack, there has been widespread concern with new realignments of federal/state powers that have followed in the name of homeland security.
Most significantly, as I discussed in a previous column, Washington is assuming powers that have only previously existed during a Congressionally declared war.
Creating the United States Senate: The Framers' Bicameralism
In designing our Constitutional system, the Framers sought to remedy the limits of the Articles Of Confederation, which created a loose association of states with little central power. The new system, they decided, ought to feature a better allocation of powers - and the federal government should have the powers "necessary and proper" to perform its envisaged functions. The will of the People should be the foundation, and the foundational institution should be the law-making legislative branch.
Unsurprisingly, the Revolutionaries were not very impressed with most aspects of the British model of government. They rejected parliamentary government, with its king or queen and three estates of the realm (lords spiritual, lords temporal, and the commons).
But one feature of the British system, the Framers did borrow. That was bicameralism - a word coined by Brit Jeremy Bentham to describe the division of the legislature into two chambers (or, in Latin, camera).
The British Parliament had its House of Lords as the upper chamber and the House of Commons as the lower chamber. Citizens selected members of the House of Commons. The members of the House of Lords, in contrast, were those who had been titled by a king or queen (lords temporal) and the archbishops and bishops of the Church of England (lords spiritual).
Loosely basing our bicameral legislature on this model (minus the lords, both temporal and spiritual), the Framers created the House of Representatives as the lower chamber, whose members would be selected directly by the people. And with almost unanimous agreement, they determined that members of the upper chamber, the Senate, would be selected by not directly, but by the legislatures of the states. Each state would have two Senators, while Representatives would be apportioned based on population.
James Madison was not only involved in structuring the system, but was also a keeper of its contemporaneous record. He explained in Federalist No. 10 the reason for bicameralism: "Before taking effect, legislation would have to be ratified by two independent power sources: the people's representatives in the House and the state legislatures' agents in the Senate."
The need for two powers to concur would, in turn, thwart the influence of special interests, and by satisfying two very different constituencies, would assure the enactment was for the greatest public good. Madison summed up the concept nicely in Federalist No 51:
In republican government, the legislative authority, necessarily predominate. The remedy for this inconveniency is, to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them by different modes of election, and different principles of action, as little connected with each other, as the nature of their common functions and their common dependencies on the society, will admit.
The system as designed by the Framers was in place for a century and a quarter, from 1789 until 1913, when the Seventeenth Amendment was adopted. As originally designed, the Framers' system both protected federalism and ensured that relatively few benefits would be provided to special interests.
The Cloudy Reasons Behind The Seventeenth Amendment
There is no agreement on why the system of electing Senators was changed through the enactment of the Seventeenth Amendment. But there is widespread agreement that the change was to the detriment of the states, and that it played a large part in dramatically changing the role of the national government.
Before the Seventeenth Amendment the federal government remained stable and small. Following the Amendment's adoption it has grown dramatically.
The conventional wisdom is that it was FDR's New Deal that radically increased the size and power of federal government. But scholars make a convincing case that this conventional wisdom is wrong, and that instead, it was the Seventeenth Amendment (along with the Sixteenth Amendment, which created federal income tax and was also adopted in 1913) that was the driving force behind federal expansion.
The Amendment took a long time to come. It was not until 1820 that a resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives to amend the Constitution to provide for direct elections of Senators. And not until after the Civil War, in 1870, did calls for altering the system begin in earnest. But forty-three years passed before the change was actually made.
This lengthy passage of time clouds the causes that provoked the Amendment to be proposed and, finally, enacted. Nonetheless, scholars do have a number of theories to explain these developments.
George Mason University law professor Todd Zywicki has assembled an excellent analysis of the recent scholarship on the history of the Seventeenth Amendment, while also filling in its gaps. Zywicki finds, however, that received explanations are incomplete.
Two Main Seventeenth Amendment Theories Don't Hold Water On Examination
There have been two principal explanations for changing the Constitution to provide for direct election of Senators. Some see the Amendment as part of the Progressive Movement, which swept the nation in the late 1800s and early 1900s, giving us direct elections, recall, and referendums.
Others, however, believe the Amendment resulted from the problems the prior Constitutional system was creating in state legislatures, who under that system were charged with electing Senators. These problems ranged from charges of bribery to unbreakable deadlocks.
Deadlocks happened from time to time when, because of party imbalance, a legislature was unable to muster a majority (as necessary under the 1866 law that controlled) in favor any person. The result was to leave the Senate seat empty and leave the state represented by only a single Senator, not the Constitutionally-mandated two.
Professor Zywicki basically demolishes both these explanations. He contends, first, that explaining the Seventeenth Amendment as part of the Progressive Movement is weak, at best. After all, nothing else from that movement (such as referendums and recalls) was adopted as part of the Constitution. He also points out that revisionist history indicates the Progressive Movement was not driven as much by efforts to aid the less fortunate as once was thought (and as it claimed) - so that direct democracy as an empowerment of the poor might not have been one of its true goals.
What about the "corruption and deadlock" explanation? Zywicki's analysis shows that, in fact, the corruption was nominal, and infrequent. In addition, he points out that the deadlock problem could have been easily solved by legislation that would have required only a plurality to elect a Senator - a far easier remedy than the burdensome process of amending the Constitution that led to the Seventeenth Amendment.
Fortuntely, Professor Zywicki offers an explanation for the Amendment's enactment that makes much more sense. He contends that the true backers of the Seventeenth Amendment were special interests, which had had great difficultly influencing the system when state legislatures controlled the Senate. (Recall that it had been set up by the Framers precisely to thwart them.) They hoped direct elections would increase their control, since they would let them appeal directly to the electorate, as well as provide their essential political fuel - money.
This explanation troubles many. However, as Zywicki observes, "[a]thought some might find this reality 'distasteful,' that does not make it any less accurate."
Should The Seventeenth Amendment Be Repealed?
Those unhappy with the Supreme Court's recent activism regarding federalism should considering joining those who believe the Seventeenth Amendment should be repealed. Rather than railing at life-tenured Justices who are inevitably going to chart their own courses, critics should focus instead on something they can affect, however difficult a repeal might be.
Repeal of the amendment would restore both federalism and bicameralism. It would also have a dramatic and positive effect on campaign spending. Senate races are currently among the most expensive. But if state legislatures were the focus of campaigns, more candidates might get more access with less money - decidedly a good thing.
Returning selection of Senators to state legislatures might be a cause that could attract both modern progressive and conservatives. For conservatives, obviously, it would be a return to the system envisioned by the Framers. For progressives - who now must appreciate that direct elections have only enhanced the ability of special interests to influence the process - returning to the diffusion of power inherent in federalism and bicameralism may seem an attractive alternative, or complement, to campaign finance reform.
Profession Zywicki likes this idea as well, but is probably right in finding repeal unlikely. He comments - and I believe he's got it right -- "Absent a change of heart in the American populace and a better understanding of the beneficial role played by limitations on direct democracy, it is difficult to imagine a movement to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment."
Be Seeing You,
By the way, this column's been posted here, in case you're curious.
Freedom, Wealth, and Peace,
Francis W. Porretto
Visit The Palace Of Reason: http://palaceofreason.com
So, repealing the direct election of senators may or may not improve the system. Repealing the right of women to vote? No way. That's a non-starter. Too many conservative women run the local party organizations.
Repealing the income tax is a grand idea. It would help starve the monster.
Ha, Ha. Not by this woman. I'm a conservative woman of the Ann Coulter mindset--gee, if I only had a body like hers.
And the highlighting of the INCOME TAX comment (by a WASHINGTON INSIDER) bore emphasis.
I'll all for killing the 17th Amendment, too.
Stop eating altogether. That's what she does.
For those to whom Roger Sherman is unknown, he is the ONLY man to sign ALL FOUR documents surrounding the formation of the United States.
He was also a fervent OPPONENT of PAPER MONEY (author of gold and silver tender portion of Art.1, Sect. 10).
This almost certainly explains WHY he has been chucked down the old memory hole by the ever-vigilant history revisionists.
It's too bad that the rampant populism we have in this country would doom any such attempt -- I'd love to see it, though. It's fascinating to try and imagine the complexion of a Senate chosen by the State Legislatures.
Let's take it one more step and have the New York State Senate chosen by the County Legislatures.
But, back to populism -- I still get into arguments with people who think everyone should vote on everything (via the Internet, of course): true democracy. Wow, can you imagine the budget, then?
A fair amount of these taxes would then be passed along to those who rent from said property owners.
Really thoroughgoing federalism would isolate the individual from the predations of all but the political unit closest to him: the town. Towns would be answerable to counties, counties to states, and states to the federal government. No government could levy a tax or impose a law on any but the level immediately below it. Poof! No more income tax. You'd see "revenue sharing" and similar inanities disappear like mist at sunrise. And political competition among districts would allow us to determine what laws we really needed for the common defense and general welfare.
I know it'll never happen. I can dream, though.
Freedom, Wealth, and Peace,
Francis W. Porretto
Visit The Palace Of Reason: http://palaceofreason.com
You do know that landlords routinely pass along the costs of property taxes to their tenants, don't you? And that businesses price their goods to cover their taxes?
I'm not really sure of the point of your slogan. If you are using it as an argument against disenfranchising non-property-owners, well and good. If, on the other hand, you are using it as an argument against business/property owners passing along their costs to their customers, that dog won't hunt.
Excellent point. A better dividing line would be between the net producers v. the net consumers of tax $$. That might be a bit hard to calculate, though, and would result in another bureaucracy that would rival the IRS. :-(
Don't forget the 14th, Section 1, final sentence: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
As I understand it, this section has been judicially interpreted to transform the Constitution from a document carefully defining the boundaries of the fedgov into a behemoth whose tentacles reach into every nook and cranny of state and local government. It's where the fedgov changed from servant of the States into their master.
Exactly but, instituting TERM limits for all Congress critters would go a long way in stopping foolishness like Senator "Pork-Barrel" Byrd!
I think the States would be most interested in keeping the fedgov subservient to the States, rather than vice versa. A State-elected Senate would be the first to holler if legislation came up that usurped matters that are the proper prerogative of the State and local governments.
Most individual folks are not interested in such abstract concepts as dual sovereignty and subsidiarity, but State governments certainly are.
Yeah. What Jim said!
I suspect, given the current ignorance of the electorate on the principles of federalism, such a proposal would go down in flames. Even with concerted efforts by the States to educate their people, I still think it would end up being too abstract to gain any traction with the majority.
Ron Paul led a brief movement in Congress to get them to do a Constitutional Impact Study DETAILING precisely WHERE the Constitution authorized ALL new legislation.
Needless to say, it failed.
Like my old friend, Lester Maddo -- no states right slouch himself -- said when the crime in the Georgia prison system was brought to his attention, "What we need is a better class of criminal."
We'll get these things done when we get a better class of politician.
And we'll get THEM when we get a better class of citizen.
Hat's off to you, Jim, for aiding that vital process.
Any agency that is not constitutionally federal in nature should either be dismantled, or divided into 50 parts and handed back to the states. That puts political control closer to the control of the citizen. And, it allows 50 ongoing experiments in governance, which is what our system is supposed to provide. There is nothing wrong with having 50 different policies on a given subject; if we are free people, it is a certainty that we will have 50 different policies that should converge over time, but never completely agree.
And I agree with your earlier post; to even think about doing this, it is going to take a clear Repub majority in Congress... not just Repubs, of course, but conservative small "L" libertarian Repubs, to get this job done.
The Senate was set up NOT to be directly answerable to the people. The Senators were given longer terms. The Senate was established as the upper chamber in the system. The Senators were intended to be senior statesmen and defenders of the Constitution and the Republic, even to defend it from the people. They were intended as a check on the hot heads of the people's house, not accomplices. They were intended to be representatives of the sovereign states and guardians of the Republic.
The 17th changed all that. Suddenly, we are no longer a republic, we are a "democracy" (as taught by politicians, and the liberal media, and the public schools since 1913). The Senate no longer defends our national sovereignty not to mention state sovereignty or the Constitution or the Republic. The Senators are now more interested in accumulating maximum federal power for their own selfish reasons. The states and the Republic be damned.
We must continue the battle in the Supreme Court. We must block the liberals and appoint only conservatives to the judiciary at every level of government.
Vote out the RATs.
Recruit and support and campaign mightily for the most conservative new blood we can find in the farm systems and the primaries, but regardless of who wins the primaries, we must support and campaign for and elect the Republican candidate in the general elections. It's the only way we will ever defeat the left and it's the only way we will ever restore our Liberty!
Vote the RATS OUT!
I'm in favor of all amendments after the 12th needing to go. Since the Constitution itself denies no one the right to vote, the 15th & 19th are politically motivated and therefore unnecessary. Likewise the 13th was a reiteration of the Emancipation Proclamation and also, IMHO, unnecessary. I agree with most here that the wording of the 14th is open to mischevious interpretation.
Of all the amendments that make my blood boil it is the 16th:
Article I, Section 9: "...No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken..."
Amendment XVI: "The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration."
This blatant turning of the Founders words directly against them, my fellow FReepers, is IMHO the worst crime in this nation's history. The kind of taxation authorized by the 16th is precisely that against which the Founders revolted .
Praise the Lord and pass the -- ballots!
These midterm elections are parmount to starting down the long road to re-building this country the way the Founders intended it.