Commentary | January 28, 2009
With the quadrennial spectacle of electing a new president and Congress over with, a short bit of reflection on the electoral process is in order. Typically, ideas for election reform occur only when in the midst of a drawn-out, dimpled-chad crisis. But the recent controversies surrounding the seating of the 112th Senate demonstrate that the time has come to repeal the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and choose Senators the way the Constitutional framers intended.
Ratified in 1913, the 17th Amendment allowed for the people of a state to directly elect United States Senators rather than the state legislature, as the Constitution had originally stipulated. This particular spasm of Progressive Era reform to bring more democracy to the people undoubtedly proved popular with many: holding more politicians directly accountable to the voters would seem to improve government transparency and lessen corruption.
But precisely the opposite has happened. Senators are more crassly political than ever before and the chamber intended to act as the “cooling saucer” for issues before government, as George Washington once hoped, it has instead become a smaller, more elite version of the House of Representatives. What was lost with the amendment’s ratification is harder to appreciate.
The Senate, more than any other aspect of the federal government, ensured the perpetual balance of power between the states and the national government. James Madison, writing in Federalist #62, realized that the legitimacy of the federal government was derived from the authority vested in the states. He stated, “the appointment of senators by state legislatures gives to state governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government, as must secure the authority of the former.”
Rarely did state legislatures unduly influence the senators they selected. The selection process allowed the state’s most qualified representatives to assert and protect the interests of the individual states as well as moderate the influence of the more passionate House of Representatives. Under this system, the difference between a House chamber directly elected by the people and a Senate appointed by local statesmen is preserved. Moreover, the federalist structure inherent in this design meant that the scope of the federal government would remain limited. The states, ever vigilant to protect their powers granted in the Constitution, would be entrusted with selecting members capable of understanding and protecting state interests.
Compare this state of affairs with today’s method of electing senators. A former comedian has been (barely) elected in one state after a month-long circus filled recount. The president’s former senate seat has become the center of a corruption scandal as the power to select the new senator was placed in the hands of one individual (a direct result of the 17th amendment). In another state, a completely unqualified, nearly apolitical member of a political dynasty was nearly appointed in a similar process after a cringe-worthy public campaign-of-sorts. In past Congresses, senators have been elected and re-elected even when bordering on senility only because of their ability to win a large number of earmarks for state projects.
While earnest progressives can point to the citizen’s direct role in the election of senators, something greater has been lost. With one of the last bastions of federalism eliminated, the size and cost of the federal government has grown exponentially. In many ways senators are less accountable to the electorate than even before due to the high costs of unseating an incumbent. Upon his retirement, Georgia Sen. Zell Miller argued for the repeal of the amendment. Now more than ever, in this season of change, it is time to restore the senate to way it once was. Perhaps then every American will have a government he or she can believe in.