Discussions centering on the 17th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America have been growing in frequency over the past year. They have been taking place since it was proposed in the early years of the 20th century. But, events over the past 15 months have sparked a rapid rise in the regularity of this dialogue.
For those who are not fully familiar with the 17th Amendment, its ratification switched the manner by which each state’s U.S. senators are selected. Originally, the Constitution was written specifying that both senators from every state were to be elected by the state legislatures. Since the amendment was ratified in 1913, all senators are elected by a popular vote among their respective states’ registered voters.
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.
The key argument against the 17th Amendment has centered on the principles of States’ Rights and State Sovereignty. Before its ratification, since U.S. senators were directly accountable to the legislatures of their home states, state governments enjoyed the authority to recall their senators back to the state capitals to answer for any and all legislative activity in which they engaged in Washington, D.C.
As a result, U.S. senators were expected to conduct all business on Capitol Hill entirely with the consent of state leaders because they were directly answerable to that legal governing body.
Over the ensuing century since this revision to our Constitution, we have found ourselves left contending with senators who only have to answer for their sins once every six years – and their accountability is largely contingent upon the accuracy of news media reporting of their track records to the public at large. This is most effectively evidenced by the passage of so-called health care reform despite that act’s enormous unpopularity among voters and the feedback demonstrating as much during the multitude of town hall meetings held over the past 12 months.
Thus, we are led to the debate once again over the value and benefit of the United States Senate having its body selected by popular vote. Reality, however, reveals that changing this back to the original design, by itself, will not be enough.
In our modern political world, a repealing of the 17th Amendment would have to be accompanied by either strong legislation reforming (by reforming, I mean virtually eliminating) the earmarks process or even an additional Constitutional Amendment to that end.
I say this because of the purpose earmarks serve for federal politicians: to curry favor with enough constituents to ensure reelection.
While returning selection of U.S. senators to the state legislatures would be an outstanding step toward restoring American law to its Constitutional origins, we must bear in mind the manner in which too many state governments (particularly, my home state of Ohio) have grown comfortable with leaning on the federal dole (especially from President Barack Obama’s beloved American Recover and Reinvestment Act legislation) to fund their budgets.
My biggest concern is that repealing the 17th Amendment as a lone course of action will not change the Senate's make-up too significantly. You would still see a collection of 100 politically well-connected elites working to rack-up as many earmarks for their home states as they can so that their friends in their respective states' capital buildings and governor's mansions will continue to send them back to Washington every six years.
But, dramatic reforms to earmarks would nullify a great deal of that form of legal corruption. It also would reduce the potential for wasteful disputes between states that would serve to muddle the political discussions across America even more so than they already are: governments in states that are more responsible with their spending would, by necessity, eventually become overly preoccupied with the rates of federal revenue consumption by others such as California, New York, Michigan, and Massachusetts – thus distracting them to an extreme from keeping their own affairs in order.
Granted, repealing the 16th Amendment (which allowed Congress to engage in taxation as we know it today) would achieve a great deal of the same effect. But, without a balanced budget amendment we likely would end-up trading one form of risk for another. While those currently in Washington (or we can expect to see there after this November's elections) would be forced to rethink their methods of federal collections (or confiscations, as most Libertarians prefer to call it), we actually have no guarantees that before they finally resolve the gap between expenditures and revenues they won't simply ramp-up their rate of borrowing to a pace that dwarfs present levels.
Stringent, detailed limits on how the federal government may spend have to be put in place one way or the other (via bold legislation or a Constitutional Amendment).
Among those details I would like to see include guidelines specifying that once the federal budget has been passed no single discretionary spending legislation may exceed 1% of the original budget during its fiscal year and total additional spending over the course of the fiscal year may not exceed 5% of its original budget. Obviously, such spending measures may be passed only if there is enough tax revenue collected to cover those expenditures.
Of course, since no one can anticipate when a crisis will arise (natural disasters, acts of terrorism, etc.) an allowance for such contingencies ought to be included. Emergency spending measures which entail exceeding either limit detailed above should require more than two-thirds (or, preferably, three-fourths) of both houses of Congress to vote “Yea” in order to reach the President’s desk for signing.
Also, I suggest these specific spending limitations as a supplement to repealing the 17 Amendment as I honestly believe the prospect for putting them in place would be more realistic than garnering enough public support nationwide for simultaneously taking the 16th Amendment with it.
Eventually, the 17th Amendment needs to be recognized for what it was: an interesting experiment in the expanded democratization of our Republic; a useful tool for the benefit of the Progressive movement; and a means to diminish the core principle of states’ sovereignty so as to allow greater power and authority to be retained by the federal government.
And then, it must be relegated to being little more than a footnote in our nation’s history.