There’s been a little bit of buzz on the Internet recently about repealing the 17th Amendment, an initiative that seems to be picking up some steam. For those of you who may be far removed from high school civics class, the 17th Amendment is the amendment to the Constitution that requires the popular election of Senators, rather than having them selected by state legislatures. Is repealing the 17th Amendment really such a great idea?
Popular Election vs. State Legislatures
The Constitution originally stated that Senators should be chosen by the state legislatures of their states. The thinking behind this was that the House of Representatives should represent the interests of the people and the Senate should represent the interests of the states. That was part of the system of checks and balances that the Founders built into our system of government.
The Founders feared democratic government, that is, a government that directly reflected the popular will. Learning their lesson from history that democracy often leads to tyranny, they sought to establish a republican form of government instead. The system of checks and balances split the legislative branch into two houses, each representing separate interests. That legislative branch would be the primary branch of government but would be balanced by the executive branch and the Supreme Court.
The passage of the 17th Amendment ensured that state legislatures would be cut out of the selection process and would no longer be able to select the state’s Senators. However, by the time the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913 many states had already moved to a de facto system of popular election. They held “nonbinding” primary elections for Senate, with the state legislators promising to select the winner of that election as the state’s senator. All the 17th Amendment did was to make that process official.
Move to Establish Republican Control?
Some of the Republican proponents of repealing the 17th Amendment are undoubtedly doing so because Republicans control 32 of the 50 state legislatures. That should result in 64 Republican Senators, rather than the 52 that we have currently, which would make it far easier to conduct business in the Senate without a constant threat of a filibuster or a constant need to invoke cloture. That illustrates how much popular elections skew things at the federal level, that states which you would expect to have Republican Senators based on their state-level voting patterns instead are represented by Democrats.
Would repealing the 17th Amendment change anything? It’s hard to say. Popular backlash, especially among Democrats, might see state legislatures suddenly become new battlegrounds, with Democrats wresting back control and selecting Democratic Senators. Then we’d be right back to where we started, but with more states controlled now by Democrats. Leaving things the way they are at the federal level but devolving more power back to the states might actually be more effective at pushing a conservative agenda than making a change to the Constitution.