Why the 17th amendment?
November 29, 2010 1:14 PM   Subscribe

What's so funny about peace, love, and the 17th Amendment?

The Tea Party is big on repealing the 14th, 16th, and 17th amendments. I get the appeal on the first two. They don't like the fact that people born in the US to illegals are automatically citizens and they don't like the income tax. I don't agree, but I understand.

The 17th is about Senators being elected rather than chosen by the state legislatures. Well, so what? First, IIRC, many states already had effective popular votes for senators (and the state legislature would then "choose" the winner of the popular vote) when the 17th was passed, so it's not like repealing it would do much. Second, really? Yeah, it gives the elected officials in the states more power, but at the expense of the voters. This seems like a wierd thing to obsess over.

I'm not trying to start a Tea Party fight here, honest. I'm just trying to work out why this?
posted by It's Never Lurgi to Law & Government (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Could be because currently, for the moment, they will hold a majority of Governor-ships/state legislators?

I honestly would be interested to see how much interest there would be in this topic if it was the other way around.
posted by edgeways at 1:19 PM on November 29, 2010

Direct elections, in theory, allow special interests to play directly to the masses and in effect "buy" a Senate seat. The Senator is not beholden to the state, but to the special interests and lobbyists.

Gubernatorial appointments provide a level of abstraction. You can't directly influence a candidate, because Senators are beholden to a governor, who ideally has his state's interests first and foremost in his mind, because the governor is elected by the state to serve the state according to a state constitution.

Moreover, you can make an argument that because a Senator doesn't need to campaign at all, you could have a skilled professional in the office, rather than someone that is merely good at campaigning.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:23 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

According to this:

"Senate candidates have to raise so much money to run that they become beholden to special interests, party members say. They argue that state legislators would not be as compromised and would choose senators who truly put their state’s needs first. "
posted by ghharr at 1:25 PM on November 29, 2010

One argument seems to be that if state legislators appoint senators, then senators will be responsible to the state legislature, rather than to the people. Senators blow off direct contact with the people, instead doing the bidding of large corporations who give them money to convince the people to re-elect them. The theory seems to be that legislators will not be so easy to blow off as voters, perhaps because of their smaller numbers? And therefore senators will be forced to ignore large corporations and fight for states' rights! I may not be understanding the whole thing, because it doesn't make a great deal of sense to me.

Also, it kind of screws the smaller states, since their number of elected officials sinks even lower.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:26 PM on November 29, 2010

Also, it kind of screws the smaller states, since their number of elected officials sinks even lower.

On the contrary, smaller states could get more powerful. People would be voting to determine a governor, who would then determine two Senate representatives by fiat. A small-state governor could pack in two highly favored people into the position, multiplying their effect because they could work on legislation in concerted efforts.

Currently, a Senator doesn't really have to give a rat's ass who the other Senator from their state is. Often, the two Senators are from different parties -- in effect, canceling out each other's votes and delaying legislation, for purely political reasons, that could help the state.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:32 PM on November 29, 2010

Best answer: There is a persuasive case that direct election of Senators fundamentally changed the state-federal power balance, making the American federal government much more powerful than the Framers wanted or anticipated. See this National Review article.
posted by Mr. Justice at 1:35 PM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

It really does seem like an incongruous position to take, when you've been going all "We the people" and "Take back our government". I suspect the thinking is somewhere along the lines of what edgeways suggests.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:35 PM on November 29, 2010

Of course, I'm talking about gubernatorial appointment. But appointment by state legislature would still have similar pros and cons.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:36 PM on November 29, 2010

Not everyone who self identifies with the Tea Party movement believes in repealing the 17th Amendment. Indeed, as someone who attended some of the earlier rallies but rolls her eyes when she hears Sarah Palin, I'd say that the majority of those who self-identify support broad notions of smaller government & fewer taxes. (Think Libertarian minus support for drug legalization.) But on the specifics, folks diverge. I think when it comes to the 17th, chesty_a_arthur hit the nail on the head. There's probably also a bit of Republic vs. Democracy sentiment at play as well.
posted by muirne81 at 1:37 PM on November 29, 2010

Cool Papa Bell - If the 17th amendment was repealed, Senators would be elected by the legislatures, not the governors.
posted by General Malaise at 1:37 PM on November 29, 2010

As a point of contrast, Canada has an appointed (and largly, but not entirely) ceremonial senate, appointed by the federal executive (our PM). A favourite talking point for the conservative wing of the country is that this should be an elected body, it going so far hold "elections" in some conservative provinces.

What goes around comes around. My view is that a major driver is perceived short-term advantage, many state governments right now are conservative-controlled, rather than long-term consideration of constitutional checks and balances within the Tea Party.
posted by bonehead at 1:37 PM on November 29, 2010

Second, really? Yeah, it gives the elected officials in the states more power, but at the expense of the voters. This seems like a wierd thing to obsess over.

Frankly, I think they think that legislatures in the South will put super-conservatives in there. People who couldn't get elected otherwise.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:39 PM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here's a comment from a conservative website:
The 17th Amendment should be repealed. The states have absolutely no voice in national affairs. The Founders set the senate up to have its members chosen by the various state legislatures to divide power; the House was to be represented by those chosen by the people and the Senate was to primarily represent the state's interests. By dividing power, neither the people nor the state legislatures had total control of both bodies. The states are the parents of the federal government; they gave birth to it and have every right to correct it when it goes astray through representation in the senate as originally set up. The Founders were great students of history and government and thought those that followed them in the public arena would be even more so. That did not happen. Great statesmen and Americanist thinkers disappeared in that body after a relatively short period of time. Neither the people nor the Supreme Court kept congress honest and demanded adherence to the Constitution. Congress has degenerated into largely a Parliament of Whores whose members sell themselves out to corporations and special interests and the system has become corrupt. Repealing the 17th Amendment and getting campaign contributions out of the equation of senatorial races would go a long way to restoring confidence in the senate and restoring constitutional government.
posted by General Malaise at 1:44 PM on November 29, 2010

From everything I've read, the reasoning is similar to election vs. appointment of judges. The Senate was envisioned as the more deliberative body which some claim the Founding Fathers wanted to insulate from the politics of the day so Senators would be free to make decisions that might be unpopular in the short term.
posted by electroboy at 2:10 PM on November 29, 2010

Response by poster: General Malaise - if the 17th amendment were repealed, Senators would be chosen by the legislature. The constitution does not require that the legislature elect them.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:12 PM on November 29, 2010

On the one side, the theoretical argument about special interests. On the other, however, is a pragmatic position. Elected officials tend not to be rabidly one way or the other, and this gets more true the more people have to vote for them. Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul are, notably, both in the House, not the Senate. You have to sway both your party base and part of the independents, to win, in many places.

So, if you have, say, a 45/40 Republican/Democrat advantage with 15% in the middle, swaying that 15% becomes critical, as does keeping your base. Doing both can be difficult. If your party runs people who are somewhat moderate, they can get a good chunk of the middle, but they might alienate the far right/left. This could become significantly easier if they could run the more moderate candidates with the tacit understanding that the more moderate wing of the party would support the more conservative wing of the party with appointments later.

Right now, I believe the general population balance in a number of classic "swing" states is such that this is more advantageous to the Republicans than to the Democrats. And, as the place where many of those less moderate Republican candidates would come from, the Tea Party would stand to gain a lot from this.
posted by gracedissolved at 2:20 PM on November 29, 2010

Sadly, I think edgeways has the most probable answer.

More charitably interpreted, it is a states' rights, small government thing. The senate was not meant to be a (directly) representative body- that's what the house is for. That the senate was supposed to be more of a house of lords thing, where wizened old fools would be there to stand in the way of the "bright ideas" of the whippersnapper house. A concept I agree with, in a way. There is little point in having two houses who are beholden to the same people. The genius of the constitution was in the obfuscation of the directness of representation, and the time span differences.

Remember, at the time, the US was more like the EU is now. A loosely held federation of quasi-nations. So it makes perfect sense that the nation/state itself would want a seat at the table alongside the representatives of the people of the states. We elect our state governments to take care of business locally, and the interests of getting that done may not coincide with what the citizens will vote for.

(for example: Nobody pulls the lever that says "raise my taxes". But sometimes they elect someone who says they will raise the taxes if that's what it takes to get the job done.)

It's not the same thing as the (myth?) that the guys writing the constitution didn't trust the people. They just knew that the opinion of the crowd is fickle and doesn't always think long term. So they came up with a way to build in some long term thinking. They built in some political dampers.

(One idea to split the difference would be that the state legislatures would appoint senators with the consent of the governor, and that appointees must be chosen from sitting congresspeople. Or hold retention elections, like they do for judges. Don't like Senator Huffenstuff? Well watch out, if you kick him out, you never know who Governor Blagojevich will appoint in his place.)

But I'm not sure anyone in the tea party has done that much analysis on it. As I said, I fear they just see it as a way to amass power.
posted by gjc at 6:27 PM on November 29, 2010

General Malaise - if the 17th amendment were repealed, Senators would be chosen by the legislature. The constitution does not require that the legislature elect them.

How else would they choose the senator? They way a legislature decides things is by vote.
posted by gjc at 6:28 PM on November 29, 2010

Elect literally means "to select for office." By vote is merely assumed.
posted by General Malaise at 9:01 AM on November 30, 2010

Response by poster: Some of the states had de facto popular elections of Senators before the 17th passed. I assume that the people voted and the legislature "chose" the winner of the popular vote as the Senator *like the Electoral College in some states).

I guess the answer boils down to a belief that the Senators would be more accountable because they would be elected with the state's best interests in mind and thus would not be a bunch of power mad, special interest weasels. The problem is that it was them being power mad, special interest weasels that led us to pass the 17th in the first place (plus, I'm pretty sure that California would quickly adopt rules requiring a 2/3 majority to elect a Senator, thus ensuring that we never have a Senator ever again. Because that's how we roll over here).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:20 AM on November 30, 2010

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