David Firestone: So You Still Want to Choose Your Senator?

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[David Firestone writes for the NYT.]

Few members of the Tea Party have endorsed Rand Paul’s misgivings about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but a surprising number are calling for the repeal of an older piece of transformative legislation: the 17th Amendment. If you don’t have the Constitution on your smartphone, that’s the one adopted in 1913 that provides for direct popular election of United States senators.

Allowing Americans to choose their own senators seems so obvious that it is hard to remember that the nation’s founders didn’t really trust voters with the job. The people were given the right to elect House members. But senators were supposed to be a check on popular rowdiness and factionalism. They were appointed by state legislatures, filled with men of property and stature.

A modern appreciation of democracy — not to mention a clear-eyed appraisal of today’s dysfunctional state legislatures — should make the idea unthinkable. But many Tea Party members and their political candidates are thinking it anyway, convinced that returning to the pre-17th Amendment system would reduce the power of the federal government and enhance state rights.

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....

To Madison, Hamilton and most of the other authors of the Constitution, allowing states to appoint the Senate was the linchpin of the entire federalist system and the real reason there are two houses of Congress. It may be true that appointed senators, accountable only to state legislators, would never approve of many useful federal mandates designed to put the national interest above local parochialism — including everything from the minimum wage to the new health care reform law.

Not enough Americans vote. But, fortunately, almost all like the idea that they can, a thoroughly modern sentiment that will confine this elitist notion to the fringes. That means Tea Partiers who are infuriated by the health care law and everything else now going on in Washington can no longer look to James Madison for a bailout. Their best remedy is the one they seem to spurn: a vote at the ballot box.
Read entire article at David Firestone in the NYT

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