100 years ago, the United States ratified an amendment to the Constitution that changed the way America chose its senators. The amendment’s supporters said that senators directly elected by the people would not only be more democratic, but also less corrupt and less susceptible to special interest influence.
Instead of reducing corruption, however, changing the method of Senate selection provided entirely new avenues of political exploitation by fundamentally transforming our federal government. Most importantly, the amendment destroyed the federalist structure that the Founding Fathers installed to protect state sovereignty.
Today, members of the Georgia state House of Representatives seek to restore state representation to the federal government by reviving the Founders’ original intent. The goal of House Bill 273 is “to protect the sovereignty of the states from the federal government and to give each individual state government representation in the federal legislative branch of government” by repealing the Seventeenth Amendment.
Of course, this resolution would not necessitate any action or response from the federal government should it pass, but it could spark a national debate on the concept of federalism, unconstitutional government, and the Founders’ original intent.
Why was the Seventeenth Amendment ratified?
As the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution, they understood that free and independent states, fresh from a long and costly war with England, would not approve of a charter that required them to totally surrender their sovereignty to a new federal government. To balance the legitimate concerns of the states with the need to preserve the union and form a national government for mutual protection and prosperity, the Founders chose a federalist system of divided powers between the states and the proposed federal government.
They also passed a Bill of Rights, ensuring that any power not specifically granted to the federal government rested with the states or the people themselves. The Founders clearly wanted a limited federal government which was balanced by the state governments.
Prior to 1913, state legislatures appointed members to represent their state in the federal government while the people directly elected members of the House of Representatives. The House represented the people and the Senate represented the states. This clever design balanced the will of the people and the sovereignty of the states, and the federal government was largely restrained from growing beyond its constitutional limits.
The federalist system was not understood by the people 100 years ago, and certainly isn’t understood today. The Founders sought to craft a system ruled by law – the Constitution – and not a rule of man. That is why the United States is a constitutional republic and not a pure democracy. They knew that just government must have consent of the people, but that total democracy would inevitably lead to a tyranny of majority, which could strip state and individual liberty as easily as a monarch.
“The Constitution does not protect the sovereignty of the States for the benefit of the States or state governments as abstract political entities,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “To the contrary, the Constitution divides authority between federal and state governments for the protection of individuals. State sovereignty is not just an end to itself.”
The people, states, and federal government all checked each other’s power, and the Constitution ruled – and protected – them all.
That is why the members of the House and Senate were originally selected in different manners. A senator would keep his position as long as he served what the state legislatures felt was in their best interest. The senator wouldn’t be encumbered by campaigning for re-election, as did his House counterparts. As soon as that senator betrayed the wishes of the state, he could be recalled and a new senator selected. When the Seventeenth Amendment permitted the people to elect members of both the House and Senate, states lost their representation in the federal government, setting the federal government on a course which would dismantle state sovereignty, individual liberty, and eventually the Constitution itself.
While federalism was effective at balancing state and federal power, those who desire power will eventually find ways to corrupt any system – regardless of the brilliance of its design.
Political battles at the state level often delayed the selection of the senate delegates. Often, months would go by, during which time the state would have no representation in the Senate. Cases of corruption and special interest influence, together with calls for more “democratic” elections, made an easy case for amending the Constitution.
Instead of limiting corruption and special interest influence in Congress, the Seventeenth Amendment magnified what, prior to 1913, was typically local and relatively small-scale problems into a much larger and sometimes international ordeal.
“Direct elections of Senators,” declared former Senator Zell Miller, a Democrat from Georgia, “allowed Washington’s special interests to call the shots, whether it is filling judicial vacancies, passing laws, or issuing regulations.”
Government has always attracted corruption, but political behavior can be managed by effective political structure. Whether it’s 1789 or 1913, a government with few checks on its power is far more corruptible than one that is constrained, and that is the effect that direct elections of senators had on our government.
With the states out of the way, an uninhibited Congress jumped at this opportunity to expand their power, primarily through the Interstate Commerce Clause. The role of defending federalism fell to the Judicial Branch, which proved ineffective as the Supreme Court ruled case after case in support of increasingly expanding federal powers. Incredibly, even the amount of food a farmer could grow for his own personal consumption (Wickard v. Filburn) was somehow under the purview of Congress.
While any bill that encroached on state’s rights would be dead in its tracks prior to the amendment, Congress today can tie virtually every aspect of our lives to interstate commerce, and thus, empowering them to rule however they see fit.
The Founders never intended to provide the federal government with this much power; if they had, there would have been no need for enumerated powers – or a Constitution – in the first place. Instead, they anticipated that public officials wouldn’t preserve federalism for federalism’s sake; they would instead act in their own self-interest. State sovereignty persisted not out of virtue, but because public officials would only retain their position if they served their states.
Why repeal the Seventeenth Amendment?
By directly electing members of the Senate, we removed the only mechanism that forced senators to represent the states and allowed them an entirely new opportunity to increase their personal power, and individual liberty has suffered as a result.
Media and political elites portray any effort to repeal or even debate the effects of the Seventeenth Amendment as crack-pot conspiracy territory, and Georgia’s HB 273 is no different. But the best single thing America could do to preserve state sovereignty, return the federal government to its constitutional role, and protect individual liberty is to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment.