The Corner

On Repealing the 17th Amendment

The last issue of NR contains an unusually large number of articles with which I disagree. I’ll focus here on Todd Zywicki’s advocacy of repealing the 17th amendment, and thus allowing state legislatures to select U.S. senators. The argument for indirect selection — which Professor Zywicki makes about as well as it can be made, I think — is a perfectly reasonable one, with which I have no quarrel. But I think there are several reasons for conservatives not to take up this fight.

1a) Amending the constitution is an immense political task. Does anyone really think that we are going to persuade 38 states to agree that voters should not choose senators directly? The difficulty of the task doesn’t mean it’s not worth undertaking: Sometimes even a losing battle can educate the public about the underlying issues and thus promote the cause (in this case federalism). But it is a consideration that tells against making the effort.

1b) If 38 states were willing to enact this amendment, we would probably already be living in such a republican and conservative country that it would not be necessary to enact in the first place.

2) It will probably seem rather odd to the vast majority of Americans who are not committed constitutionalist conservatives to see conservatives devoting a large portion of their energies (as they would have to do; see 1a) to this topic rather than to more direct measures to reduce federal spending, reduce the debt, revive the economy, and so forth.

3) This campaign would actually miseducate Americans, since it would suggest that what has gone wrong with American federalism is that the federal government has grown at the expense of the states and that the solution is to increase the power of the states against the federal government. That is indeed the impression you would get from a lot of conservative rhetoric about federalism, but I do not believe it is true. (I had an essay making my case in a recent NR.) Contemporary state governments are more the allies than the victims of the swelling federal government. I would not look to newly-empowered state legislators as a class to find resistance to federal bailouts of the states, or for help in letting people buy health insurance across state lines.

I think then that conservatives should keep the discussion of the 17th amendment confined to the theoretical rather than the practical-political realm.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.