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17th Amendment: Solution or Problem?

There are many things I am not. I am not a scientist, immunologist, constitutional expert, professional sports figure, nor an astrophysicist. My father, a career counselor, taught me that college is to build knowledge of the world, and the ability to think critically, not necessarily as vocational training. He also taught that the main reason we don’t understand certain topics is terminology. Learn the terminology of an industry or problem, and you can start to converse about it!

So, because of this, I have no discomfort in pontificating on subjects of which I know very little. Maybe I have too much time on my hands right now, but I have been identifying problems or changes I see in our world, whether it be our view of existence, inconsistencies in the business world, government, and society at large. I am hoping to become a bit more informed, as we live in a complex world without the ability to see all of it.

Once I have defined an issue, I sort out my own thoughts before reverting to online resources or the minds of experts. I look to clarify what I think the issue is, and lay out context for myself. Then, I think of a few explanations or main causes I could think of. So, by and large, I develop my own independent working hypothesis. Then, I search out individuals and content related to supporting the hypothesis or rejecting it.


Federalism

As an example of all of this, I’ve been fascinated with the concept of Federalism, which was established in our US Constitution. It is a fine balance of supremacy of national laws and enforcement with the primacy of states as the level of government that gives the federal government its power. The states collectively agree to support the nation’s laws within the confines of the Constitution.

Our country today has a more powerful federal government than originally envisioned, while the states are somewhat constrained in their power and influence. My hypothesis is that there are structural considerations baked into the constitution to maintain the balance, and that this has changed over time. The seventeenth amendment is one such structural change. But wait, we’ll get to that in a minute.

Our founders, fresh from the wounds of the Articles of Confederation, realized that the federal government must be strong enough to create and enforce laws, yet still exist as a limited construct, subservient to the wills of the states. When we look at our governments today, for our purposes here, we have a state government and a federal government. When the constitution was ratified by the states, it was the states that gave the power to the federal government. The states can work together through, with, or around the federal government as they saw fit. The powers of the federal government were engrained to be limited, based on the 10th Amendment enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

Now we find ourselves under the same constitution (with the addition of Amendments), with an extremely large federal administrative state, that by and large is not constrained by the states in the manner originally envisioned by the founders. The link between the State government and the federal government has in some ways become much larger, as the federal government uses financial incentives to entice states to comply with federal legislation. However, it has become much weaker, in that the states operate removed from the federal legislative process, which means that state-level influence of laws for their constituents is disconnected. The federal legislature has an independent life quite removed from state government. We may discuss more about that in the future.

Today, though, I am exploring why our states do not have the kind of power and standing with the federal government that a federalism would imply.


Article 1 of the US Constitution

One important dynamic of this construction is the method used for states sending representatives of the state to the federal legislature. Our bicameral legislature is established in Article 1 of the US Constitution. Section 2 mentions that Representatives for each state shall be chosen “by the People” in proportion to their population of the country overall. This is meant for the House of Representatives to be most closely aligned with the direct “will” of the people. The term of 2 years means that the representatives must continuously engage with their populace if they wish to continue in their position.

Section 3 of Article 1 dictates the method for selecting senators:

“The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.”

In this manner, the legislatures of each state not only managed the legislative affairs of the state, but also selected individuals to represent the state in the Senate. While I haven’t scoured the Federalist Papers on this, it seems to me that this provision meant that the senators who are selected will be in service to the legislature of the state. To me, this means that a Senator was representing the will of the state directly through the mechanisms of state government. If a State was unhappy (via legislature disapproval) with a proposed bill, the weight of the legislature is carried with the senator into the decisions within the federal government. The states seemed to have real power through that accountability.


The Seventeenth Amendment

Where did this change? How did the state governments lose their influence as independent republics within a federation? This led me to consider how power devolved away from the constitution into a more direct federal government relationship with the people. This is where the 17th amendment came in.

Any institution that has an ability to be corrupt will eventually be corrupt. Something for all of us to contemplate because it is a near certainty. So, think of the amount of corruption occurring when a member of a state legislative body has a chance to select an individual for senate. Influence peddling amongst leaders appears to have been rampant. There was a large anti-corruption movement that supported the 17th amendment.

There were also the progressive movements that felt like democracy would be furthered if the people of a state were directly voting for senators. It was the combination of these two forces that pushed through the 17th Amendment.


Opening paragraph of the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913:

“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.”


The impact of the Seventeenth Amendment

The Brookings Institution reviewed the 17th Amendment at its 100th anniversary:

If the goal was to make the Senate more responsive to constituents, the study they reference says it has failed, and is less responsive now, based on analysis of roll call votes. More money (adjusted) is spent today on senate elections than prior to the amendment, and the senate is just as divided today if not more. There was a period after the adoption of the 17th Amendment that the senate was less divided, but that changed over time.

The result that we see today is a federal government with a Senate that is largely non-responsive in the way the founders envisioned (the adults in the room that represent the interests of their states and minimal federal government). We see the federal government increasing their power over our daily lives, mandating state expenditures and programs, and, I would say, over-reaching at least according to the Constitution.

We can see that this conflict exists when we observe state governments, mostly governors, fighting back against federal overreach. We also see states combining together to bring lawsuits against the federal government. There are governors ignoring mandates from Washington D.C. that are in conflict with the needs or desires of their state.


Summary

In conclusion, I started looking at potential reasons for such a disconnect in the relationship between states and the federal government now relative to the Constitution’s intent (at least as I see it). One important glue that held the fragile relationship in check (theoretically) was the selection of US Senators from the state legislature, not by “the people”. While it seems clear there were problems with that, it is equally clear that changing this to direct election caused (or furthered) a fissure of accountability between the states and federal government. There are most likely many contributing factors, of course, but a constitutional amendment that alters the processes needed to protect or nation is certainly one of note.



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