The 17th Amendment to the Constitution: The beginning of the end

we the people

Now hold on a minute. I know what you’re thinking. 1913 was the worst year ever? The 17th Amendment was the beginning of the end? Well, yes. On both accounts. 1913 was the worst year ever for several reasons, and we are going to cover those reasons in the next few blogs. The 17th Amendment is only ONE of the reasons. Hear me out.

We have heard a multitude of people who keep clamoring for term limits for legislators. The term limit proponents say that if legislators were not allowed to stay in office for more than, say, two terms, then they would be less likely to be in the pockets of the big corporations. Term limits are not the solution because term limits are not the problem. Term limits is like taking aspirin for a brain tumor. You might feel a little better but you are still going to die.

Originally the Constitution provided for the citizens of a state to be represented by their members in the House of Representatives, directly elected by the people of that state for a two year term. The senators were selected according to state law, (appointed by vote in the state legislature or appointed by the governor with advice and consent of the state legislature) for a term of six years. The senator might be selected from the state legislature’s membership, from a list maintained by the governor or from completely outside government, as frequently happened. Did you get that? The senators were appointed, NOT ELECTED by the public. 

Article 1, Section. 2.The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States,

Article 1, Section. 3.The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof [Modified by Amendment XVII], for six Years;

Essentially, the Senate was designed to represent the interests of the state governments in Washington while the House represented the interests of the citizens of the states.

That all changed with the ratification of the 17th Amendment in May of 1913. It provided for the direct election of senators and effectively left the governors and legislatures without a voice in D.C. The Senate no longer answered to the states but to the citizens. State laws, prior to 1913, allowed governors or legislatures to change their senator at the end of the senator’s six year term. If the governor’s office or the legislative majority changed party then the change in the states senators was essentially guaranteed. That was a true bicameral government. If the bicameral system still existed, then the state governments could put a stop to any type of insanity Washington D.C. might come up with.

Unfunded mandates (a decree from the feds without any funding to pay for it) such as Obamacare would not happen. The governors could say “not just no, but hell no!” The tax rates and IRS would not be out of control. The governors could say “not just no, but hell no!” All the abusive acts by the federal government would not have happened. Governors and state legislatures can be easily changed by the voters. (I could go on and on, but I won’t. Use your imagination.) Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist [paper] No. 59 that, “The interest of each State, it may be added, to maintain its representation in the national councils, would be a complete security against an abuse of the trust.” That representation ended with the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment.

Equally importantly, since senators would not be elected by the general population then term limits of either federal legislative body would be moot.

It should be noted that Progressives in the early 1900s stated on more than one occasion that the states’ power to appoint senators stood in the way of implementing their agenda. The direct election of senators became the primary goal of William Jennings Bryan and other influential Progressives. They succeeded in 1913 with the ratification of Seventeen. It has been downhill for the American Dream since then. Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan led the charge to water down our bicameral system. The progressives knew their agenda would never happen if the states had the ability to stop it. I won’t go into the reasons for the 17th other than to mention that corruption in the appointment process was used as one of the primary argument in favor of the amendment.  Even though reforms at the state level could have corrected the corruption issues, that would not have facilitated the fundamental change in the government that the Progressives were seeking. They used high explosives to solve the problem when a surgical solution was really all that was needed.

Also, importantly, the rise of the influence of lobbyists in D.C. can be traced directly to the direct election of senators. Power abhors a vacuum and something had to fill the power vacuum left when the states were cut out of the federal government. This played right into the hands of the lobbyists working for the big corporations who were flush with new power (thanks to the 1886 Supreme Court ruling about corporate personhood), allowing them to only have to worry about “buying” two senators for each state rather than hundreds of representatives in the state legislatures. The fundamental change the Progressives were seeking happened in a big way. Sound familiar?

Until next time.


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