Q&A Friday #39: Repealing The 17th Amendment?

Question: “Given the terrible performance of the US Senate and Senate Republicans in particular, I am in favor of repealing the 17th amendment and returning selection of senators to the state legislatures. I believe this will significantly reduce the influence of big money interests and increase the influence of local government at the expense of the federal government. Do you think this analysis is correct and what are the chances of actually achieving the repeal of amendment 17?” — Sol_Invictus

Answer: First of all, here’s the 17th Amendment:

Clause 1. The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.

Clause 2. When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of each State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

Clause 3. This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.

What this did was change the way Senators were elected. Before the 17th Amendment, US Senators were elected by State Legislatures. Do keep in mind that it was not a perfect system. There were corruption charges and deadlocks that actually prevented Senate seats from being filled.

On the other hand, you can make an effective argument that the 17th Amendment should be repealed to undercut the power of special interests and shift power back to the states, but the chances of it actually happening are practically nil.

The American people aren’t going to want to give up the right to vote for their Senators and the Senators aren’t going to be keen to change a system that may, for many of them, make it much less likely that they’ll be reelected.

Personally? I think we’d be better off pursuing non-retroactive term limits that would only apply to newly reelected members of Congress, not those representatives that are currently serving. That would also weaken the influence of special interests and encourage Senators to live up to their ideals. Plus, it would have an outside shot of passing if there was enough grassroots support.

*** Update #1 ***:

Question: “Can someone please summarize the core argument for me?

Repealing the 17th Amendment will significantly reduce the influence of big money interests and increase the influence of local government by _____

I have heard some people argue for the repeal before but I have never really gotten a clear answer on how or why it is supposed to help. Thanks!” — jhr4n

Answer: Well, the dynamics would change a lot if Senators were elected by state legislatures instead of the public at large.

For one thing, they would no longer need massive campaign contributions to run statewide ads because they could, over the course of the year, actually sit down and talk to everyone who’d be voting for them. That’s why “big money interests” would lose a lot of influence if the 17th Amendment was repealed.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Senators tend to have a very cavalier attitude about having the federal government usurp powers that should rightfully belong to the states. That’s because the Senators themselves benefit when they acquire new powers. But, if they actually had to answer directly to their own state legislature, their attitude would likely reflect that of their new constituency and they’d become zealous guardians of state’s rights.

Hope that helps.

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