Repeal the 17th Amendment!
It made the Senate more democratic — and that’s not good.


Charles C. W. Cooke

It makes no more sense to argue that to return to this original arrangement would be to “take away” the “rights” of the people than it does to maintain that not being able to vote directly for Supreme Court justices violates their democracy. Everything has its place, and indulging popular sovereignty is simply not what the Senate was designed to do. One could sometimes be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but the states are not regional departments of the federal government. To ensure that they had a working mechanism by which to resist the expansion of federal power, the architects of our Constitution hard-wired the state legislatures into its structure; with the 17th Amendment, progressives pulled out that wiring like punch-drunk Jacobins.

Has there ever been a time when America was more in need of the states’ being represented in Washington? “The People” have their representatives in the House. The nation has its leader in the White House. What of the states? Andrew Napolitano has it right: The 17th Amendment, he gripes, “effectively just gave us another house like the House of Representatives . . . and the states lost their place at the federal table.” This is problematic because, to their great discredit, The People seem not greatly to care how power is structured. Who then is surprised that the abolition of the Senate as the supporting wall of federalism has led inexorably to, as Jefferson warned just before his death, “all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things,” being “drawn to Washington as the center of all power”? Returning the selection of senators to state legislatures would help to focus citizens’ eyes locally, where they belong.

“Democracy” may be the cry now. But as Alex Seitz-Wald goes on to acknowledge in his dissent, the primary argument in favor of the 17th Amendment was that it might serve to cut out corruption. Money was said to be rife in politics; direct elections would stamp it out. Lobbying by big business was staining the republic; direct elections would cut the buggers off at the knee. The small constituency that a senator served effectively gave him tenure; an amendment would make the body competitive. Bad behavior among senators was rife; the rigors of direct election would make them moral. And how are things now that the scalpel has been taken to Madison’s handiwork? There is more money in politics than ever before; direct elections have served only to cut out the middleman between lobbyists and politicians; senators rarely lose their seats; and Ted Kennedy killed a woman and got away with it.

In a brilliant Humanitas essay from 1996, C. H. Hoebeke rendered this judgment:

In retrospect, the amendment failed to accomplish what was expected of it, and in most cases failed dismally. Exorbitant expenditures, alliances with well-financed lobby groups, and electioneering sleights-of-hand have continued to characterize Senate campaigns long after the constitutional nostrum was implemented. In fact, such tendencies have grown increasingly problematic.

Americans purchased this dismal failure at the cost of their federal system’s integrity. Like the other two Progressive Era amendments that sit either side, the 17th is a testament to hubris — a parchment admonition of those who would tinker with the permanent in the name of the temporary. Nonetheless, it benefits those who would be required to amend it, which, alas, is a recipe for eternal life in Washington. Repeal is thus almost certainly a dead end; interest in such things is limited. And so the federal titan lumbers on, the states shrinking inexorably in stature. One cheer for democracy, Mr. Wilson.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.