Few Americans who entered polling booths for the Nov. 4 election and pulled the lever for their favorite candidate for Senate realize that for most of American history, senators were chosen by the state legislatures. It wasn’t until 1913 that the 17thAmendment was passed, granting American voters the constitutional right of directly electing their senators.
While this important amendment may seem innocuous, the reality is that few other changes to our Constitution have had the same detrimental effect on our nation than this single, nearly forgotten alteration.
The passage of the 17th Amendment was driven largely by the populist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, led in part by the wildly talented orator, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. The cry from the supporters of the 17thAmendment was that the average individual was being taken out of an important and valuable process. Any true proponent of democracy must, they reasoned, favor the empowerment of the common man over state institutions.
Although it’s true the 17th Amendment gives more direct power to the individual voter, the purpose of the Senate was never to represent the individual voters – the House of Representatives already served that function. The Senate was designed from its very inception by the Founding Fathers to protect the rights of the once-sovereign states.
In the legendary Federalist Papers, intellectual giant James Madison, who would eventually become America’s fourth president, explained in essay “No. 63” the importance of the role of the Senate elected by a state legislature rather than the people themselves: “To a people as little blinded by prejudice or corrupted by flattery as those whom I address, I shall not scruple to add, that such an institution [a Senate elected by the state legislatures] may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions. … so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.”
Madison continued, “In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?”
The purpose of the Senate then was to exist as a safeguard against two potentially tyrannical powers: the presidency and the people.
Madison, like all the Founding Fathers, understood that each voter, whether he or she is a member of a state legislature or an individual citizen, casts a vote based primarily on personal interests. A citizen not familiar with the difficulties, responsibilities, or struggles of a state legislature is far less likely to vote for a senator who will represent the interests of his or her state.
In contrast, the individual legislator is likely to vote with a special sort of caution – one that looks suspiciously on any candidate that may seek to usurp the power of a state. In this unique instance, both liberals and conservatives in a state legislature stand on common ground. Although they often disagree on issues of policy, neither wishes to see the power of the state legislature diminished in favor of centralized government in Washington, DC.
Since 1913, the power and irresponsibility of the federal government has grown exponentially. Because states no longer have a seat at the table, state legislatures are now constantly at the mercy of the federal government, and there is no sign of a return to sanity in the near future.
A good illustration of the erosion of the responsibility of government is found by looking at outstanding government debt.
The debt actually shrank from 1790, when a large debt remained outstanding from the Revolutionary War, to 1850. It increased only slightly in the 50-year period beginning in 1865, the final year of the Civil War, and ending in 1915.
The 50-year periods following the passage of 17th Amendment witnessed a remarkably different era of fiscal responsibility (or the lack thereof). From 1913 to 1963, the outstanding national debt grew from just under $3 billion to over $305 billion. From 1963 to 2013, the outstanding debt climbed to over $16.7 trillion.
Without a check and balance on the spending power of the federal government, voters continued to ask for more expensive social programs and the federal government happily obliged (or perhaps the federal government implemented programs first and the people, not wanting to lose their newly found financial benefits, then demanded the protection of those programs).
In addition to the deplorable lack of fiscal restraint, the states have also largely been stripped of their powers in other arenas as well. Although the examples of this power grab are seemingly endless, two more recent expositions of federal tyranny over the states are the now-infamous No Child Left Behind Act established by President George W. Bush and the current push made by President Barack Obama to implement Common Core State Standards – national standards for curriculum that all states are being coerced into accepting through the use of Obama’s Race to the Top federal grants.
If states do not even have sovereignty in the area of education, a topic clearly meant to be protected by the 10th Amendment and a subject nowhere discussed or implied to be under the power of the federal government in the Constitution, then what legitimate powers remain?
Other than the ability to tax and issue driver’s licenses, states have little sovereignty, and the evidence is overwhelming that this is the logical result of the elimination of the state legislature’s role in selecting members of the Senate.
Had the 17th Amendment never been passed, America would be far different (and better) than it is today.
Justin Haskins (Jhaskins@heartland.org) is an author, blogger, and an editor of publications at The Heartland Institute, a leading free-market think tank based out of Chicago, IL. You can follow him @TheNewRevere.