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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The 17th Amendment and The United States Senate

The history of government of the United States of America is quite interesting as it also continues to be an ever-evolving story. The original form of government with its subsequent changes, the creation of the Senate along with the change in how Senators have been chosen coupled with current proposals in the selection of Senators has got me pondering.

It was the Second Continental Congress that approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. However, it was not until 1781 that the United States of America adopted its first form of national government under the Articles of Confederation. While each state was granted much independence, the Articles of Confederation did not provide the national government with the authority to make the states work together to solve national problems. Under this early form of federalism, early Americans were not all that happy with the national government and decided a change was needed. Consequently, the call for governmental change resulted in throwing out the government entirely with the adoption of a new form of government under the Constitution of the United States in 1789.

Article 1 of the Constitution is known as the legislative article because it establishes the national legislature for the United States. In compliance with this article of the Constitution, the national legislature is composed of a two-chamber Congress consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate, as stated in Article 1, Section 1: “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”

According to the Article 1 Section 1 of the Constitution, members of “the House of Representatives shall be … chosen … by the people of the several states, …” with each state having proportionate representation, i.e. each state having its number of representatives determined proportionately by the size of its population.

In regards to the Senate, the Constitution provided that each state shall have two senators regardless of the population size. Additionally, the Constitution stipulated that those senators were to be chosen by each state legislature. Section 3 of Article 1 states, in part: “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof, ....“

Note that the Constitution as ratified in 1789 provided that each state be allowed two senators with each state legislature choosing those two senators. This is how United States Senators were chosen for the next 124 years.

It was in 1913 that the 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. It is the 17th Amendment, adopted 124 years after the Constitution of the United States was ratified, that changed the manner in which United States Senators are chosen. It is the 17th Amendment that took the responsibility, authority, and power of electing senators from the state legislatures. It is the 17th Amendment that gave the power of electing Senators directly to the people of the states. Amendment 17 to the United States Constitution states, in part: “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two senators from each state, elected by the people thereof … “

Now, 97 years later, there is a group of people, most of whom have aligned themselves with the Tea Party movement, who wish to change the method of choosing Senators by going back to the original method of having Senators chosen by the individual state legislatures.

So, if we are to essentially repeal the 17th Amendment, are we taking a step backwards or are we correcting the error of our ways to go back so that we may move forward?

I have heard some pundits criticize this proposal of having the state legislatures choosing U.S. Senators as taking away the right of people to vote. If we return to that method of selecting Senators, do the people really lose power? In our republican government, our representative democracy, are not the state legislators elected by the people and empowered to act on the behalf of the people? If we do not trust our state legislators, why did we elect them? If it concerns a matter of having a direct vote and a direct voice, why do we have a representative democracy, why not just go to a direct democracy form of government?

Why do we keep going back and forth about how we select members of the United States Senate? I get so confused with the arguments, pro and con. Do we want a representative democracy, a direct democracy, or what?


Hooda Thunkit (Dave Zawodny) said...


Seems to me that someone is jumping the gun on this one.

Maybe "we" should first wait and see what the November election brings before "we" try making wholesale changes in our form of government.

In all likelihood, this urge to change things will pass if the next group of duly elected legislators start to respond in the appropriate manner to the wishes of "We, the Sheeple."

If not, then they might have something to work on, to return the representation into our form of government; but, to my thinking, changing how we elect our senators isn't one of them. . . .

Maggie Thurber said...

Since I'm a proponent of repealing the 17th Amendment, allow me to explain my core reason for being in favor.

Our system of government was designed to include checks and balances - not just within the federal government, but with the states as well.

One of the reasons senators were to be nominated by the state legislatures was to ensure that their loyalties were to the state itself - as an independent participant in the governance of the nation. The issue of states rights was primary among the framers of the Constitution as well as the people of the states.

With senators loyal to the states, it was expected that the federal government would be prohibited from exceeding its authority because the senators would never allow the rights/authority of the states (to whom they were loyal) to be taken over by the federal structure.

I believe - and it is a belief - that if the senators were loyal to the state as a whole, the federal government would never get 'unfunded mandates' past the congress. The idea of 'green mail' (holding back federal funds until a state agrees to comply with federal demands) would also end. In fact, many taxes might not ever get past the Congress if states thought the money was better left in their locations in the first place.

While I cannot see into the future, I do believe the states would be a more equal partner in the governance of the nation if the senators were not directly elected.

Just some food for thought.


Maggie Thurber said...

oh - and my position is not dependent upon which party controls the congress or the white house...this is a principle issue - not a political one, though I know some people see it differently.

Tim Higgins said...


Repealing a previous Amendment to the Constitution is something that we have done before as you are well aware (the 21st repealed the 18th, an act that I can certainly drink to).

That being said, it was the original design and intent of this representative republic to separate the function, electoral process, and deliberative nature of the two Houses of Congress. Terms of election were therefore different, as were the nature of representation (two per state vs based on population), and the responsibilities (the Senate confirms, federal judges, cabinet posts, and ratifies treaties).

Appointment by the legislatures was to insure that the loyalty of these representatives would be to their respective states, and to provide an additional bulwark to the rights of those 13 United "States" against too strong a federal government.

Many now complain about the national nature of Senatorial elections, the money invested in such campaigns, and the influence of party loyalty vs representative loyalty. It certainly seems that many of these issues would be answered by such reversion.

For those who complain about taking away the will of the majority, let me point out that this method of appointing Senators (as well as the electoral college) was designed not only protect the will of that majority, but to likewise protect the minority from the tyranny that goes with strict democracy.

In truth, this might be worth considering for no other reason than to eliminate some of the election cycle political commercials.

Anonymous said...

Our founding fathers were an amazing group of people, but they had their flaws like everybody else. They could not see into a future in which information was available to anyone who wanted to look for it. When they wrote the original constitution, only a select few Americans were well educated, even though, statistically, a higher percentage of Americans were literate than people in England. Keep in mind that the only people allowed to vote in the 18th Century well into the 19th Century were white males 21 and over, who owned property. The "good ole days" weren't necessarily so good nor so equitable as we would like to think.
The truth is that the founding fathers did not only mistrust women, non-whites, and poor, landless men, most of them mistrusted the general populous. The Electoral College and the election of senators by the state legislatures were in the constitution to prevent voters from having too much power, to keep power in the hands of elitists. The founding fathers believed that common voters would know all about local issues and would pay close attention to local elections. Therefore they allowed for the direct election of those who would be seated in the U.S. House of Representatives because they presumed that voters could be trusted with electing local people from their state to represent a congressionl district. (It is NOT required that a U.S. Representative live within the congressional district which he or she represents, only that they live within the state from which he or she is elected.) The main reason for having the state legislators name the senators from each state was that most of the founding fathers felt that the average citizen would not be knowledgable enough about people running throughout the state. The main reason why the Electoral College exists is because the founding fathers wanted the President to be selected by groups of outstanding citizens in each state, again because they simply did not trust the people to know candidates from other parts of the country well enough to make good decisions about whom to choose for President.
The 17th Amendment recognized our changing nation, the increasing number of average Americans who were being well educated in our public schools. In fact, I truly believe that one of the statistics that would most shock people like Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin is that far less voters cast ballots in local elections than in statewide elections, and far less voters cast ballots in statewide elections than in national elections. They would think that this would be the exact opposite.
In short, the selection of senators by state legislators would be a giant step away from trusting the populous. For those naive enough to believe that this would mean less money spent on elections, just imagine the senatorial candidates raising money to give to state legislative candidates who would support their candidacy for the U.S. Senate! Remember the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates? They were held to get candidates elected to the Illinois State Legislature in 1858 who would support either Lincoln or Douglas for the U.S. Senate from Illinois upon their election! BTW...Stephen Douglas got the seat!
We must not only preserve the 17th Amendment. While we're at it, let's get rid of the Electoral College, too. I, for one, trust the people more than I do a convoluted system that empowers elitists from each state in the selection of our President!

Tim Higgins said...

"The history of ancient and modern republics had taught them that many of the evils which those republics suffered arose from the want of a certain balance, and that mutual control indispensable to a wise administration. They were convinced that popular assemblies are frequently misguided by ignorance, by sudden impulses, and the intrigues of ambitious men; and that some firm barrier against these operations was necessary. They, therefore, instituted your Senate."
- Alexander Hamilton

CWMartin said...

I had to think about this one a bit. Maggie made some excellent points. There is something to be said for a system that requires a candidate to be better at making friends than making money. However, repealing the amendment will make the difficult job of libertarians, grass roots choices, and others that much harder to be heard. In fact, I kinda wonder if the whole thing was brought up to try to diffuse tea party-type candidates. At the end of the day, I should like to keep my ability to cast write in votes- to cast voptes, period, as it were.

Mad Jack said...

I'd get rid of the 17th, providing that some form of check against loyalty to the State could be written and enforced.