Joe Miller, Alaska’s Republican nominee for the United States Senate, recently expressed support for an idea that is rapidly gaining steam in Tea Party circles: the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment. Miller subsequently backtracked from his statement, but he shouldn’t have: Repealing the Seventeenth Amendment would go a long way toward restoring federalism and frustrating special-interest influence over Washington.
Ratified in 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment replaced the election of U.S. senators by state legislators with the current system of direct election by the people. By securing the Seventeenth Amendment’s ratification, progressives dealt a blow to the Framers’ vision of the Constitution from which we have yet to recover.
The Constitution did not create a direct democracy; it established a constitutional republic. Its goal was to preserve liberty, not to maximize popular sovereignty. To this end, the Framers provided that the power of various political actors would derive from different sources. While House members were to be elected directly by the people, the president would be elected by the Electoral College. The people would have no direct influence on the selection of judges, who would be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate to serve for life or “during good behavior.” And senators would be elected by state legislatures.
Empowering state legislatures to elect senators was considered both good politics and good constitutional design. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the proposal was ratified with minimal discussion and recognized as the approach “most congenial” to public opinion. Direct election was proposed by Pennsylvania’s James Wilson but defeated ten to one in a straw poll. More important than public opinion, however, was that limitations on direct popular sovereignty are an important aspect of a constitutional republic’s superiority to a direct democracy. As Madison observes in Federalist 51, “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
Election of senators by state legislatures was a cornerstone of two of the most important “auxiliary precautions”: federalism and the separation of powers. Absent some direct grant of federal influence to state governments, the latter would be in peril of being “swallowed up,” to use George Mason’s phrase. Even arch-centralizer Hamilton recognized that this institutional protection was necessary to safeguard state autonomy. In addition, the Senate was seen as a means of linking the state governments together with the federal one. Senators’ constituents would be state legislators rather than the people, and through their senators the states could influence federal legislation or even propose constitutional amendments under Article V of the Constitution.
The Seventeenth Amendment ended all that, bringing about the master-servant relationship between the federal and state governments that the original constitutional design sought to prevent. Before the Seventeenth Amendment, the now-widespread Washington practice of commandeering the states for federal ends — through such actions as “unfunded mandates,” laws requiring states to implement voter-registration policies that enable fraud (such as the “Motor Voter” law signed by Bill Clinton), and the provisions of Obamacare that override state policy decisions — would have been unthinkable. Instead, senators today act all but identically to House members, treating federalism as a matter of political expediency rather than constitutional principle.
There is no indication that the supporters of the Seventeenth Amendment understood that they were destroying federalism. But they failed to recognize a fundamental principle of constitutional design: that in order for constraints to bind, it is necessary for politicians to have personal incentives to respect them. “Ambition,” Madison insisted in Federalist 51, “must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”
Under the original arrangement, senators had strong incentives to protect federalism. They recognized that their reelection depended on pleasing state legislators who preferred that power be kept close to home. Whereas House members were considered representatives of the people, senators were considered ambassadors of their state governments to the federal government and, like national ambassadors to foreign countries, were subject to instruction by the parties they represented (although not to recall if they refused to follow instructions). And they tended to act accordingly, ceding to the national government only the power necessary to perform its enumerated functions, such as fighting wars and building interstate infrastructure. Moreover, when the federal government expanded to address a crisis (such as war), it quickly retreated to its intended modest level after the crisis had passed. Today, as historian Robert Higgs has observed, federal expansion creates a “ratchet effect.”
Just as important as its role in securing federalism, the Senate as originally conceived was essential to the system of separation of powers. Bicameralism — the division of the legislature into two houses elected by different constituencies — was designed to frustrate special-interest factions. Madison noted in Federalist 62 that basing the House and Senate on different constituent foundations would provide an “additional impediment . . . against improper acts of legislation” by requiring the concurrence of a majority of the people with a majority of the state governments before a law could enacted. By resting both houses of Congress on the same constituency base — the people — the Seventeenth Amendment substantially watered down bicameralism as a check on interest-group rent-seeking, laying the foundation for the modern special-interest state.
Finally, the Framers hoped that indirect election of senators would elevate the quality of the Senate, making it a sort of American version of the House of Lords, by bringing to public service men of supreme accomplishment in business, law, and military affairs. There is some evidence that the indirectly elected Senate was more accessible to non-career politicians than today’s version is. And research by law professor Vikram Amar has found that during the 19th century, accomplished senators such as Webster and Calhoun frequently rotated out of the Senate and into the executive branch or the private sector, with an understanding among state legislators — and, notably, the senator selected to fill the seat — that they could return to service if they wished to do so or were needed. Foes of the Seventeenth Amendment argued at the time that its enactment would spawn a deterioration in the body’s quality. Whether the modern titans of the Senate such as Trent Lott, Bill Frist, Harry Reid, and the late Ted Kennedy are superior to Webster, Clay, and Calhoun is to some extent a matter of taste. But it is likely that reinstating the original mode of selection would change the type of individuals selected — and it is not implausible to think that the change would be positive.
Establishment media and liberal politicians have mocked tea partiers’ calls for repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment as anti-democratic. To be sure, indirect election would be less democratic than direct election, but this is beside the point. Notably, those who are most shocked by the proposal to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment are also the most vociferous in denouncing democratic election of judges. The Framers understood what today’s self-interested sloganeers of democracy do not: What matters is not whether a given method of selecting governmental officials is more or less democratic, but whether it will safeguard the constitutional functions bestowed upon each branch and conduce to their competent execution. Indeed, certain of the Senate’s duties — such as its role as a type of jury for impeachment proceedings — make sense only if it is somewhat insulated from the public’s passions of the moment, as was well demonstrated by the farcical Senate trial of Bill Clinton.
Critics of repeal have also contended that election of senators by state legislatures was, and would be today, unusually prone to corruption and bribery. But research by historian C. H. Hoebeke found that of the 1,180 Senate elections between 1789 and 1909, in only 15 cases was fraud credibly alleged, and in only seven was it actually found — approximately one-half of 1 percent. Moreover, it is absurd to think that even this modest degree of corruption would be tolerated in the modern media age, any more than politicians can today sell judgeships or other appointed offices, as they frequently did in the past. And even in the progressive era it was not believed that direct election of senators would prevent corruption. Among the Seventeenth Amendment’s staunchest supporters were urban political machines (hardly advocates of clean government), which understood that direct election would boost their control of the Senate as they drove and bribed their followers to the polls.
Repealing the Seventeenth Amendment would not be a panacea for what ails the American political and constitutional system. As during the era before the Seventeenth Amendment, many states would probably adopt either de facto direct election of senators, in which legislatures essentially agree to ratify the popular vote, or attenuated forms of it, such as primaries or conventions to select party nominees from whom the legislatures choose. And much work would remain to be done to restore the public’s understanding of the difference between a direct democracy and a democratic constitutional republic. But repeal would be a step in the direction of restraining an imperialistic central government and frustrating special-interest influence. Whether or not it is good politics, it remains sound constitutional design.
—Mr. Zywicki is a George Mason University Foundation professor of law and a senior scholar of the Mercatus Center. He has written several law-review articles examining the history and impact of the Seventeenth Amendment. This article first appeared in the November 15, 2010, issue of National Review.