Many Americans on both sides of the aisle think that the U.S. Senate is broken and that something needs to be done to fix it. But, the truth is it has been broken for decades and the way to fix it is to repeal the disastrous 17th Amendment.
If you think our nation is being ruined by the two party system you should consider the huge mistake we made in 1913 by changing our Constitution to allow American citizens to vote our federal Senators into office. In the beginning and until 1913 we did not elect U.S. Senators to the upper chamber because the founders originally meant for them to be individually appointed to office by the legislatures of the various states.
That 1913 mistake is the17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Previous to 1913 senators were appointed by the state governments to represent them in Congress but after passage of the 17th amendment the Senate became an elective office with members elected by the people at the ballot box in a general election.
At first hearing, it seems like a good idea full of populist “power to the people” to elect senators. It also seemed like a way to “fix” what had seemed like an error in the original Constitution. The cure, however, has proven worse than the disease and made the old saying, “all politics is local” into a lie at long last.
As originally conceived by our founders, the members of the House of Representatives were to represent the needs of the people of their regions or states, which is why they are elected by the citizens of the states. Senators, on the other hand, were supposed to represent the state legislatures in Congress to assure that Federal power did not usurp state sovereignty and were, therefore, appointed by those same state legislatures accordingly.
But now that senators are elected to their position we have essentially eliminated any say that state governments might have in federal matters simply because those same Senators are no longer beholden to their state legislatures.
It is true that there was a problem with the original way we placed senators in Congress, granted. Previous to the 17th amendment state legislatures could often be found in such a closely split balance between parties that a choice of a senator was a political impossibility when the parties were not able to agree on a candidate. The consequence of this deadlock was that sometimes states would find themselves without a senator sitting in Washington and, therefore, without representation there. Even in the very first Congress New York found itself without a senator for a period of time because they could not agree on a candidate due to a deadlocked legislature. The problem really became troublesome after the Civil War and just until the Amendment was proposed. Delaware once went four years at a stretch without a senator. This was the problem the 17th Amendment was meant to remedy.
At first this seemed like an ideal solution. Let the people vote and take the burden off the state legislatures and, in this way, assure that there will always be the requisite number of senators sitting in Congress.
Unfortunately, we have seen the result of this fix to the Constitution, an act akin to putting a Band-Aid on a case of skin cancer, allowing the malignancy to grow instead of getting rid of it.
By opening senators to election by the people we took the influence of the state right out of the federal government. Since the senators themselves were no longer directly responsible to the state legislature, but supposedly to the people who elected them, they no longer had to pay strict attention to what the state government needed or wanted. The senators were autonomous from the state legislature and have since gravitated toward adherence to strict party ideals making them beholden to the national parties and not the state OR the people who elected them. They now campaign on the “national issues” of the day instead of upon the issues their state is interested in pursuing.
Such campaigning on party issues was pioneered by the Democrats in the 1930’s as they tried to advance the New Deal policies of the FDR administration. It was made into an art form by the Johnson and Clinton administrations with the Republicans following suit starting with the Reagan era and solidified in Newt Gingrich’s ’94 elections. National parties have since made strict national issues or planks which have become a litmus test for party candidates and for party money to be bestowed upon them for their campaigns by the national organizations.
This, in turn, has totally eliminated state control or representation in the halls of Congress and that has unleashed a torrent of federal rules and regulations that have hamstrung the states and reduced them to vassals of the federal government.
Senators who are beholden to the national parties make it less likely that they will differ too greatly from the party line thereby not giving them much latitude to act independently or to be influenced by regional concerns. This is increasing year after year.
The issues senators run on have been thoroughly nationalized and so has the expectations of the electorate of just who is and who is not a “proper” member of any particular party. For instance, abortion and gun control have become national standards for party affiliation whereas they used to originate from regional standards. Al Gore used to be against abortion and gun control before he became a Democrat on the “national stage” and from the point he announced a run for the presidency. In the early 1990’s he made a 180-degree flip flop on those issues for no other reason than to be compatible with the national policies of the Democratic Party. He did this while still a senator, it should be remembered. He certainly did not change his opinions out of introspection but rather to “fit in” with the directives of the national party and to assure himself the attention and support of that national party.
Joe Lieberman is another perfect example of this problem. He was forced to run as an “independent Democrat” back in the early 2000s against an upstart candidate who didn’t even come close to representing the needs and wishes of the people of Connecticut but one who fit in perfectly with the Democratic Party leadership. The party alone tried to choose Connecticut’s candidate quite regardless of what the people of the state wanted.
Another aspect of this problem is the amount of campaign donations that come from outside any particular state to fund a senate run. Lieberman’s unrepresentative opponent was heavily funded by forces well outside the state instead of by the citizens who would actually elect him to office. This has the effect of driving the costs of running for office ever higher in key races.
This nationalization of issues also has the unintended consequence of making an independently minded national candidate for president difficult to elect or to even be heard because the parties themselves have become stronger than the states making them far more the arbiter of who is “allowed” to run for office than the people. This has made the truly conservative Republican a pariah in the national party.
Perhaps it is time to revisit the 17th amendment and place power back in the hands of the states as they determine who will represent them and, in turn, us in the halls of the Senate of the United States.
Text of the 17th Amendment
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 shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston.
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