Paul Adair is a 21-year Germantown resident, retired scientist, writer, and lecturer.
The Seventeenth Amendment to the US Constitution provides for the direct election of US Senators. Before the amendment was ratified in 1913, senators were appointed by the state legislatures. This was often a corrupt process. Political machines took over some legislatures and named their own puppet senators. And it was far cheaper to buy a Senate seat by bribing state legislators than to run a candidate for election by the people. Reformers, such as Wisconsin's own “Fighting Bob” La Follette were instrumental in America finally ending these abuses.
However, a repeal of the 17th Amendment has recently been advocated by many Tea Party groups, politicians, and other assorted wing-nuts. For example, Senators Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Mike Lee (R-UT), as well as Texas Governor Rick Perry support repeal. Failed Tea Party Senate candidates Joe Miller (Alaska), Richard Mourdock (Indiana), and Todd Akin (Missouri) campaigned on repeal. Right-wing bloviator Glen Beck is for repeal. And diet book author Mike Huckabee called the 17th Amendment “One of the dumbest things we ever did.”
What is the appeal in repeal? It is often claimed by the far right that the 17th Amendment negates a former check on the powers of the Federal government. That the amendment allows the Feds to take away power from the states. Supposedly, if a pre-amendment Senator voted for increased Federal powers (like uniform nation-wide laws or Federal income taxes), they would be replaced by their state legislature.
This argument assumes that the general electorate in a state does not also act in a manner that is in the interest of the state. It also takes an elitist position, believing that a group of state legislators-a gang of career politicians- can make a decision that is superior to one made by the general public.
What would happen to the US Senate if state legislatures again selected its members? Certainly, national politics would become even more polarized and rancorous. Today, Senators need to appeal to the general public, which exerts some moderating influence on their votes. If a Senator appears too extreme, they lose the moderate middle of the electorate and therefore, their next election.
If the 17th Amendment is repealed, that moderating influence would be gone. Senators would only be answerable to the partisan state legislators of their own party. Only those senators who vote their Party line would retain their seat. After the 1913 ratification, the degree of political polarity between parties in the US Senate decreased.
If the 17th amendment is repealed, the composition of the Senate would be very different. We would never again see Republican senators from blue states or Democratic senators from red ones, along with the voices of moderation that those members provide. No more Mark Kirk (R-IL) or Scott Brown (R-MA). You would never see a Joe Donnelly (D-IN) or Mary Landrieu (D-LA). And independents such as Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Angus King (I-ME) would never even have a chance.
Currently, Senators are elected by their entire state. In contrast to the House districts, state borders are not subject to the unconscionable gerrymandering that we have seen in recent years. A return to selection of Senators by state legislators would make the rewards for gerrymandering of state districts even sweeter.
In the Wisconsin Assembly, Republicans hold a 60-39 lead in seats, despite Republican candidates getting several hundred thousand fewer votes than Democrats. Allowing such a non-representative legislature to select our US Senators would be a further gross corruption of our democracy and make a travesty of our vote.
How might Wisconsin's Senate representation be different without the 17th Amendment? Certainly, Tammy Baldwin would not have been selected, despite the actual will of the people. And because Ron Johnson was an unknown political outsider, it is doubtful that he would have been selected, either. The seats probably would have gone to political insiders. Can you say Senators Jeff and Scott Fitzgerald (R-Fitzwalkerstan)?
Between 1866 and enactment of the 17th Amendment, the states adopted a senatorial selection procedure in which each house of a state legislature would separately vote. If the two houses could not agree on a nominee, they would meet in a joint assembly to select the senator. So in a “split” state, the party holding the most seats (state Senate + state Assembly) would fill the office.
Republicans currently control a majority of the state legislatures. They control both houses in 28 states, while Democrats only control 17. Of the 5 states with split legislatures, 3 have more Democrats and 2 have more Republicans. So if all of the US Senators were replaced today by today's state legislatures, we would have a Senate consisting of about 60 Republicans and 40 Democrats. Republicans would take-over the Senate by a wide margin. It is no wonder that many on the right are pushing for a repeal of the 17th Amendment ! They already gamed the House through gross gerrymandering. Now they want to game the Senate by repealing the 17th Amendment !
Ol' Fighting Bob must be spinning in his grave ! Repeal of the 17th Amendment would spark a return to the political corruption of the early 1900's. It would create an even more partisan and contentious US Senate. It would take political power away from us, the electorate, and instill it in career politicians like WI State Senators Glen Grothman, Alberta Darling, and Don Pridemore. What a disaster that would be for our country and our democracy !