Why Repealing the 17th Amendment is a Great Idea

Yesterday, on the heels of Obamacare being cemented for what seems like the hundredth time, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee tweeted his support for repealing the 17th amendment.

The 17th Amendment, for those who don’t know (and because I want to keep you on my article instead of looking up other things, of course) was ratified in 1913 and established the direct election of Senators by popular vote, doing away with about 120 years of Senators being chosen by state legislatures.

I disagree with Governor Huckabee in a sense, because supporting the repeal of a Constitutional amendment because an issue persists in not going our way is simplistic and petulant. That said, I have long supported doing away with the 17th Amendment, and I’m glad to see the question getting more attention.

Let’s go back to the beginning and discuss why Senators weren’t elected by the people to begin with.

Our system of government, as you may have heard, was initially designed to reflect both the will of the people directly by way of the House of Representatives, whereas the Senate was to represent the interests of state governments at the federal level. Of course, the people weren’t totally disregarded in the process, as they elected the state legislators who in turn chose Senators.

In support of this original design, James Madison stated in the Federalist #62 that, “It is recommended by the double advantage of favoring a select appointment, and of giving to the State governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government as must secure the authority of the former, and may form a convenient link between the two systems.”

Supporters of reform, William Jennings Bryan among them, were rightfully concerned about deadlocked legislatures and corruption. Since Article 1, Section 3, made no explicit provision as to how the states were to conduct the entire process of choosing Senators, some states instituted a system in which the people voted in primaries which committed their legislatures to vote for the winner to become a Senator. For some, this didn’t go far enough, and they were finally able to get their way in 1913 with the ratification of the 17th Amendment.

It is my view that such a measure was completely short-sighted and blatantly contradictory to the form of government that was designed at the outset, that being a very careful balance of power between the federal and state governments. Indeed, it has made having a bicameral legislature in Washington redundant, and undermined the notion of federalism itself.

That said, I’d like to present a few ideas of how to address this issue instead of simply bemoaning the fact that the current system is less than ideal:

1. Simply Repeal the 17th Amendment: This is, of course, my favorite option. It returns power to the state governments as was originally intended, which should be enough reason to support the idea. What’s more, it would encourage greater turnout in elections for state legislatures. Consider the fact that in 2015, when control of the State Senate was at the top of the ballot and every seat in the House of Delegates was on the line, turnout in Virginia was only 29.1%. Turnout in the most recent Senate election in 2014 was almost 42%. Not great, but turnout was better than in 2015. If the person representing their state in the U.S. Senate depended upon who was in power in Richmond, Trenton, or elsewhere, the average voter may pay more attention to those legislative elections which currently only draw about one-third eligible voters to the polls.

2. Make Congress a Unicameral Legislature: I actually hate this idea, but let’s explore it anyway. If the upper and lower chambers of Congress redundantly just represent the people in general and the state governments are not specifically represented, what is even the point of having both? Yes, I’m aware that the Constitution allots certain powers to the House and others to the Senate, but these are in conjunction with them representing different constituencies, with only one being directly elected by the people. What’s more, the idea of a unicameral legislature isn’t as outlandish as it may sound. Indeed, the State of Nebraska has just such as system (and non-partisan elections). Surely a similar solution would be workable at the federal level.

I’m sure people reading this may have other ideas, and I’d be interested in seeing them in comments. But if we are ever to get back to a system of government that is truly Federalist in nature, it is time to take the direct election of Senators away from the people and to return to a process that combines the voice of the people (who elect their state’s Delegates/Senators) with the proper representation of state governments at the federal level.

  • SJane

    I agree w/you putting the question out for debate, however, Virginia is rather unique and should be COMPLETELY explored prior to this decision.
    NoVA has some 8+ million people in some 4-5 counties, most financial support to VA coffers comes thru their tax dollars, + influence…leaves the remainder of the counties in state w/less influence, financial base, etc. This is high population counties, high $ incomes vs. rural, tidewater, mountainous areas, larger land masses/rivers in a bind, for influence in Richmond Congressional Houses. IMO

  • John Harvie

    I wonder if we’d get rid of the silly practice of off-year elections, turnouts would be better. We hardly if ever get away from political campaign intrusions what with congressional elections in between. As soon as we’re done with one campaign we’re bombarded with another.

    That national elections detract from interest in statewide elections may be an outdated fiction. Alas, blog sites, media and CMs would never go for such an idea.

    • Anonymous Is A Woman

      I’ve argued the same thing for years. The only people who really benefit by our insane electoral schedule are political consultants, who have continual employment. I think when you add up all the off year elections and the special elections between regular elections, you end up with a turned off public and diminishing voter turnout.

      • MD Russ

        Actually, the purpose of off-year elections is to suppress voter turn-out. That allows the party bosses to better control the elections by getting the party faithful to the polls in larger numbers than the voters at large. And before anyone points a finger at Republicans and voter suppression, remember that off-year elections, along with poll taxes, literacy tests, etc, date back to the Solid Democratic South following Radical Republican Reconstruction.

        • John Harvie

          Literacy tests might not be such a bad thing to reinstitute.

          • MD Russ

            Then let’s start at the top and have a literacy test for anyone who wants to run for POTUS. Our incumbent President could not pass an 8th Grade Civics exam. Of course, that does not speak very highly of the people who voted for him or the 32% who still approve of the job he is doing after only six months. Make America Grate Again.

  • mezurak

    Why not just drop the whole pretense of popular voting and let our betters do the electing? No more worrying about slating, incumbent protection teams, lawsuits against local party officials, and endless BS ads on TV and radio. They all know better than us anyway.

    • Timothy

      There is still a popular election of Congressman, this is simply returning the Constitution to it’s original form. This gives the states a voice in the federal government so that unfunded mandates do not get shoved down the state’s throats.

      What actual arguments do you have against this other than pretending that this is elitism? It isn’t. The Senate was supposed to be the voice of the states while the House was the voice of the people.

      • mezurak

        Have you looked at the House lately? There’s no voice of the people or the state. Moving the Senate back changes nothing.

  • Rick_Sincere

    Repeal the 17th amendment in conjunction with a term limits amendment that puts a cap of 12 years in office in either house of Congress or a combination of 24 years in both.

    • Cam

      Need term limits for bureaucrats as well, though.

      Limiting the terms of elected representatives substantially increases the power of the unelected bureaucracy that many would argue is way too powerful already.

    • David Obermark

      I am against term limits. When I find a good one, I want to be able to keep voting for him/her. Good ones are hard to find.

      • MD Russ

        The POTUS has been term-limited since FDR died. That has worked out pretty well for us. The Whig Party of Abraham Lincoln had an unwritten rule that members of Congress would serve only one term and then let the next guy take his turn. That worked out pretty well, too, until the Whigs disintegrated over slavery. Term limits would solve the gerrymandering and incumbent-protection problems that create gridlock in Congress with no substantial contribution to democracy. Think of term limits as adding some chlorine to the Congressional gene pool.

        • DJRippert

          Well written. No corporation would allow an 80 year old CEO. Nor would the military allow an 80 year old general. But Congress is chock-a-block with the geriatric set as one “member” after another is re-elected again and again until they literally die. I am embarrassed by many of our Congressmen and Congresswomen from both parties. If not term limits … at least a mandatory retirement age.

  • Brad

    Excellent commentary. One good thing about the bicameral congress even if it is redundant is that it creates more gridlock which slows the government growth. Also, because of the election process, the House is far more diverse which benefits minorities(much like the electoral college) and the Senate retains a broader power for overall majorities. So I don’t think the current situation is pointless. All that said, I’m right with you. Repeal the 17th, and give the state legislators more power. As a citizen, it is much easier to gain the ear of my state congressmen than my federal congressmen.

  • frankoanderson

    Thanks to gerrymandering of the state legislative and U.S. Congressional districts, Republicans have effectively subverted the will of the people, rendering the proposal of returning to legislative elections of U.S. Senators utterly meaningless. This is precisely why the people need the ability to directly elect US Senators. Virginia is a purple state leaning blue, having voted Democratic in each of the last 15 years’ statewide elections except 2009, but Republicans have carved up the state so that they can maintain control.

    Be honest: would you be advocating for this if Republicans didn’t have control of Virginia’s and the majority of states’ legislatures?

    • Stephen Spiker

      Frank, as I’m absolutely positive you’re aware, Senate Democrats drew and gerrymandered their own lines in 2010 as well.

      The Congressional lines were a compromise measure that was an incumbent protection planned, and signed off on by Gerry Connolly and Bobby Scott.

      The last time Democrats had control in Richmond during an end-of-decade (1990), they also gerrymandered to increase their own clout.

      If Democrats take back control in 2017 and 2019, will you be championing non-partisan redistricting, or will you be celebrating new lines that increases Democratic electoral chances?

      Finally, if you’re interested in having state leg lines be more partisanly even, encourage your Democratic friends to stop clustering themselves in urban centers.

      • Jim Portugul

        Wow! Since Mr. Schoeneman left us, so have your up arrows. Coincidence?

        • David Obermark

          What? Brian left us?

      • David Obermark

        I oppose gerrymandering no matter who does it. How about you?

        • Stephen Spiker

          I’m opposed to hypocrisy no matter who commits it.

          • David Obermark

            That is a good starting line we all should agree on.

      • frankoanderson

        I’m for nonpartisan redistricting no matter who’s in power. I don’t mind fighting to win.
        When are Republicans going to acknowledge that all the racist Democrats joined their party decades ago? And that every effort to make it harder to vote is pushed by Republicans because they know that when fewer people vote, they win?

        And what about my original question? Would you be advocating for abolishing the 17th Amendment if Republicans didn’t have control of Virginia’s and the majority of states’ legislatures?

        • Stephen Spiker

          Neat-o. As you go around reminding people of the evils of Republican gerrymandering, I just hope you remind yourself to make mention of Democrat’s complicity in the matter as well.

          I didn’t say anything about racist Democrats, so go find the guy that did and talk to him.

          To answer your question, yes, I would, and for the same reason that I support statehood for DC and don’t oppose statehood for Puerto Rico. Because I think it would make for a healthier democracy and electoral partisanship isn’t a good reason to stand in the way of that.

        • Rob Andrews

          Are you referring to the lines of Robert Bird? No sorry he was a life long Democrat that Hillary Clinton loved! But he was also a KKK grand wizard or something in that military arm of the DEMOCRATIC PARTY! Then there is party favorites like Margret Sanger that had a goal to wipeout the black population by abortions and sterilization. The reason that the government got involved in marriage was 1 taxes and 2 so that the lesser people wouldn’t breed!! But go ahead a try to rewrite history to hide the crimes of the Demoratic party.

      • old_redneck

        You need to read “Ratf###ed: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count,” by David Daley.

        The argument that both sides do it is horseshit.

        • Stephen Spiker

          I’m familiar with the book and the underlying arguments.

          Both sides absolutely do it. The evidence is clear in states today. You want to argue that Republicans did it better than ever before in 2010; much of that is due to the 2010 mid-terms being a wave year for Republicans resulting in victories in state legislatures and Governorships across the country.

          Mid-term elections during decade-end years only happen every 20 years. Wave elections are also rare. It just so happened that the GOP benefited from a wave election at the most opportune time in the redistricting calendar.

          Blame (or credit) the GOP for what they were able to accomplish if you like, but under no circumstances does that change the fundamental truth that both sides do it, and have done it for centuries.

    • VaRadarCop

      More lies, Frank. The Dems have been stealing elections to keep power since the end of the Civil war, by either refusing to seat black GOP Reps who were elected, or destroying ballots to alter vote totals, and of course nowadays, concentrating Dem votes in big cities so the whole state goes blue (NY).
      They’re trying to do that here in Va too and elsewhere with the push to let illegals vote. Crooked party! Figures it would come from Dems, the party of slavery…

      • Chris

        Have you heard of the southern strategy?

    • David Ormsby

      And you think that the Democrats don’t gerrymander????? Too funny. Look at California.

      • Stephen Spiker

        California has a non-partisan redistricting commission. Maryland is a much better example for you to use going forward.

        • David Ormsby

          The point is that California didn’t have such back in the 60s, and they divided the state up to the Democrats advantage (greatly). What you’re seeing today in California is a result of that.

        • DJRippert

          Maryland is a recognized disaster of non-democracy. The Gerrymandering in Maryland is something to behold.

  • Scott

    A unicameral system in Congress would work. The Romans used that system for a thousand years. It’ll never happen here. Bottom line is that our country is doomed unless we restore our government to its intended design. State legislators need to elect their senators and have recall powers over those they send to Washington.

  • Jim Portugul

    Moot, not going to be any amendment, period. We’re just to corrupt to open that can of worms.

    Basically, you propose letting the lobby elect Senators. No sir, I don’t think so.

  • donjohn

    Article V Convention of States is the only answer. Any other options would require members of Congress to begin the process of reining in themselves. Everyone knows that ain’t gonna happen!

    • RSII0210

      I saw a New York plated Van here in VA with a no constitutional convention bumper sticker. Yankees are scum

      • Chris

        Probably a conservative, if they are even thinking about the constitutional convention issue.

        • RSII0210

          It was Anti Constitutional Convention

          • Chris

            I understand that. But I have never heard of a liberal even discussing the idea, let alone bothering to have a bumper sticker about it. It was probably a conservative who is afraid of a runaway convention.

    • MD Russ

      Be careful what you wish for. The 17th Amendment grew out of the Populist Movement of the early 20th Century when US Senators were largely appointed by corrupt state legislatures who were bribed by special interests. It was an over-reaction. Don’t think for a minute that an Article V Convention wouldn’t be far worse with special interests pouring money into everything from banning abortion to repealing the Second Amendment to abolishing the Electoral College. We really don’t want to go there. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And it ain’t broke.

      • Chuck Geer

        Amen Merle. The system, with all of its considerable faults, isn’t broke.

  • Charlie Ratcliff

    Members of the House of Representatives represent specific Federal districts within their state and are elected by vote within their district only. Members of the Senate represent the State as whole and are elected by statewide vote. No need to repeal the 17th Amendment at all. Just another attempt by the Tea-baggers to suppress votes.

  • Kim Allen Hoggard

    When I turned 18 and was able to Vote I registered as a democrat. However, as I got older I realized, I have a mind of my own. I am a hard working American. I was a single mother, that put myself through College. (Let me clarify, I did not give a care in high school grade a education., c- student) As I have gotten older and yes I have a college Degree( with honers)! I now have an opinion of my on. I work in the medical field. I am so sick of the People that want what they are NOT entitled to. We live in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. We take Everyone in and shelter them. WE DO NOT PAY THEIR WAY……………. We dang sure don’t pay them to be here. I Pay WAY TO MUCH for my insurance, I am SICK of paying for everyone else!. I see the abuse of the system every single day.

  • dantheman08822

    Hull, you can take your proposal and shove it.

  • Alouisis1

    Gerrymandering makes the idea of repealing the 17th Amendment a very poor idea indeed. It would turn all of government (State & Federal) over to the dominant party; practically eliminating the possibility of any other party gaining dominance.

  • Solid Snake

    Fine but we must also repeal the 2nd amendment then.

  • John Rains

    Major logical fallacy in his argument is stating that the “original design” should be followed just because it was “original”. Well, that “original” design was the product of major revisions, compromises, and minor changes before a “final design” was reached. Just which one of those “original” designs should we adopt? Jefferson wanted popular vote for almost everything.

    • old_redneck

      Republicans worship “original intent” because they want to return to voting only by white men who own property.

  • NorEastSida

    Frankly, if you’re not interested in voting for local elections, you’re not interested in voting for federal spots either. People aren’t going to be interested in the fact that voting for your local state rep is going to figure in on who gets to go to the US Senate. The farther away you are from something, the less interested or knowledgeable you’re going to be. And given the way memories go, if the legislature sends Joe Butthole to the US Senate, it’s too late to do anything about your rep. They won’t really think about it when the next local election comes about.

  • James Wellman

    Ok so here’s my comment. I am a conservative, probably more so than you. I am pro-gun, anti abortion, small government minded person. Your idea of eliminating the 17th is ridiculous. We need more power in the people directly, not less. You think I want my state legislature to have more power? The guys that eliminated competition here in Florida by deregulating the cable industry, the guys here that get big money from sugar and allow them to ruin fishing? We need a constitutional amendment that allows the American citizen to directly amend the US constitution, albit through a super majority vote that the President, and Congress must follow. We need a constitutional amendment that disallows political parties. Only then will power truly be in the average Americans hands. And if you were any kind of true conservative, and not a wannabe, then you would think the same thing.

    • old_redneck

      You need to be careful . . . you’ll be asked to turn in your Conservative ID card!!! Repeal of direct election of Senators is a long-term rightwing wet dream.

    • Anonymous Is A Woman

      I don’t agree with a lot of your ideas, but I upvoted you because I absolutely agree that we need more democracy, not less, more citizen engagement, not less. And I lived in Florida so I can testify that you are exactly right about how the state legislature created more harms there.

      The last thing we need is repeal of the 17th Amendment.

  • David Ormsby

    Senate races costs run into the millions and millions of dollars. Many of our senators are “in debt” to donors, often large corporations with agendas they want their donee to vote for. Repealing the 17th amendment eliminates a lot of potential graft that results (and it does). As for gerrymandering within the states…it has happened for many, many years, and probably will continue, regardless of which party is currently in the majority within the state.

  • old_redneck

    How about you Republicans cut out the smoke screen and admit it — you have two goals: (1) limit the franchise to white male property owners, and, (2) turn our barely-surviving representative democracy into an oligarchy.

    As for the first of your goals — damn near every state that is controlled by a Republican governor and legislature has enacted legislation that limits access to the polls. The most egregious examples are Kansas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Ohio. The only reason Virginia has not turned into North Carolina is that two successive governors — McDonnell and McAuliffe — have turned away General Assembly attempts to limit the franchise. Nevertheless, you Republicons persist.

    As for the second. Your argument that direct election of Senators reduced the power of the states is seductive . . . and it’s as wrong as it is seductive. Election of Senators by state legislatures or any scheme other than direct election will result in election of Senators by the likes of Dominion Power — which, of course, is what you want.

    Repeal of direct election of Senators is just another of your attempts to repeal the 20th Century.

    PS: I find it interesting that Barely Adrift and The Bullshitting Elephant both are featuring articles about repealing direct election of Senators.

  • Chris

    Re: a unicameral legislature. Smaller states would never ratify an amendment eliminating the Senate.

  • Craig Scott

    Separation and decentralization of powers are a twin load star which are
    providence should be guided by, yes repeal the 17th Amendment. Even
    better, return to the the Articles of Confederation.

  • Biscuit

    The time has certainly come for the repeal of the 17th. The Senate seems only to represent the political parties and not the broad interests of the individual states. Hence, it is like a body in limbo without a clear meaning or purpose. Repealing the 17th Amendment will restore its relevance.

  • Cam

    It’s a phenomenal idea; there is currently zero accountability for a Senator, once they’re elected. Runs completely contrary to Constitution’s intent.

    Wouldn’t Senate have to approve the repeal, though? They’re never going to voluntarily give up their own power.

    Maybe some way to prove it was never ratified properly in first place?

  • Rob Andrews

    The notion of Corruption by state legislatures was a red herring by the progressives. The corruption of senates elected by the People is no less. In fact the corruption is far more pervasive because so much money is involved. On top of that a lot of these senators vote on laws that hurt their own state and people. The fact is is that the Senate has become nothing more than an upper house were the Senators only look out for themselves. Since the 17 amendment passed states have lost most if not all their power to an every threatening federal government. That has greatly exceeded the 18 Constitutional LIMITATIONS that were set on it. Also isn’t it interesting that not only did States loses their power in the Federal government in 1913 but the federal reserve was given a charter that same year. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely= the United States Federal Government!!

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