Leave the Seventeenth Amendment Alone!

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Byron W. Daynes, Ph.D., is Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University.

History does repeat itself!  Listen to those Tea Party spokespersons this year who support the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment that allows for the direct election of senators.  They are using the same ill-conceived arguments eastern Republicans and other opponents of the amendment’s original attachment to the Constitution used in the 1890s.  A study I did several years ago about the Seventeenth Amendment revealed that the 1890 Tea Partiers predicted that the new legislative system introduced by the amendment would surely bring the total destruction of federalism, and even a collapse of the entire governmental system.  

After the adoption of the amendment, opponents feared that senators would now have to deal with constituents who, unlike state legislators, had little knowledge and understanding of the legislative process.  Moreover, foes of the amendment claimed that the selection of senators after 1913 would be haphazard and irrational, unlike the selection from the state legislatures which were experienced in the nomination process.  Opponents from small states were particularly concerned that larger states, under this “new” popular election system, would not respect the pre-1913 principle of state equality since, as voiced by one senator, it was never agreed that there should be equality between a populous state like New York and a state of limited population like Maine in a legislative chamber that now looked little different from the House of Representatives.  In short, the Senate would cease being a trusted body of public servants. 

Those nineteenth-century arguments should sound familiar to Tea Partiers of today.  Mike Lee, winner of the June 2010 Republican U.S. Senate primary in the state of Utah, and who was also instrumental in casting aside former U.S. Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT), went so far as to state in his blog that the first and most important thing we could do to remove the dominance and unambiguous corruption of the federal government would be to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment.

Arguments from the supporters of the amendment in 1890 may have shared one concern in common with the Tea Partiers of today, namely, they too were interested in ridding the Senate of corruption—but the corruption the 1890 supporters saw was the Senate being staffed by state legislative “aristocrats.”  For the people to regain control of the Senate and secure representation, supporters argued, the people had to control the Senate seats.   Moreover, they saw the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment as the only way to release U.S. senators from having to make a regular accounting to their state legislatures—legislative bodies, they felt, that had become too concerned with national affairs, diverting them from the focus they should have had on state and local affairs.

But because the Seventeenth Amendment did not live up to all of its expectations, disillusionment with the amendment reached its peak in 1929 when opponents introduced legislation to return the Senate back to its old form of election.  Fortunately, the effort failed and the Amendment remains a part of the Constitution.

But one is hearing a variation of those 1929 arguments today from the disillusioned Tea Party spokespersons who wish to strip the amendment from the Constitution in order to purify the political system and eliminate the evils of politics.  Tea Partiers might do well to recall what historian Alexander Bickel once argued; namely, that there was virtue in following a restrained attitude toward structural reform.  Suddenly abandoning government institutions is an act that may reverberate throughout the political system in unpredictable ways that citizens may regret.

Reform made in haste or based solely on the ideological or patriotic appeal of the moment, or made in ignorance, may well frustrate the whole basic purpose for which the reform was originally advanced.  Too many Tea Partiers of today, like those narrow-minded opponents of the amendment in the nineteenth century, have given little thought to the political and social consequences of their desires beyond the emotional appeal of the moment.

There are other less extreme ways of reform to achieve similar ends other than eradicating this amendment from the Constitution.  Lincoln wisely argued that both life and limb must be protected, but on occasion a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb.  Leave the amendment alone!  Leave the Constitution intact.

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