Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Tea Party perspective on the 17th Amendment

The Tea Party perspective on the 17th Amendment; The 28th Amendment

Before the primary for Virginia’s 11th congressional district, the Republican nominee, Keith Fimian, went on a radio show and was asked about some Tea Party participants’ desire to repeal the 17th Amendment. Passed in 1913, the amendment granted the direct popular election of senators, as opposed to their selection by state legislatures. Apparently, there is a feeling in the Tea Party that states’ rights would be better protected without the amendment. Fimian, while admitting that the idea has “some merit” said that he would not be inclined toward repeal.

Nevertheless, Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly’s campaign is hammering Fimian for “want[ing] political insiders in Richmond to decide who represents us in the U.S. Senate. This radical shift will take us back to a time when a handful of insiders decided our future. Does that seem a little bit crazy to you?”

Well, actually…maybe not. The 17th Amendment was advocated by progressives who felt that the Senate was turning into a place for men of wealth who demanded special services. When the first Senate office building opened in 1909, bathing facilities, a masseuse, and an electric subway catered to the likes of William Lorimer of Illinois, whose election was invalidated after he was accused of bribing state assemblymen to obtain his seat.

So, in that sense, it seemed like a good idea to democratize the system. But then a funny thing happened: when one-third of the Senate was up for reelection in 1914, two did not receive their party’s renomination, but none of the incumbents lost in the general election. Apparently, the state legislatures had done a pretty accurate job of channeling the people’s choices. And what’s even funnier, the direct-election reform doesn’t seem to have had much impact on the type of people who get elected.

Consider a few of the current Senate members: John Kerry, John Rockefeller, Frank Lautenberg, and Dianne Feinstein are worth over $50 million. The list of millionaires also includes John “Eight Houses” McCain, cellphone mogul Mark Warner of Virginia, and Senate candidates Carly Fiorina of California and Linda McMahon of Connecticut. Who needs to bribe state legislators anymore when your personal fortune can fund mass negative ad campaigns?

What might a Senate look like if all its members were chosen by legislatures? Much of the talent pool would probably remain the same: former governors and representatives for sure, but probably even state legislators or judges could be chosen to go to Washington. It would certainly increase the prestige of state politics, and senators would not only have to lobby the legislators, but would also have to convince their constituents to exert pressure on their state representatives—which could result ironically in more spending to win the votes of only several dozen people.

Maybe senators would more readily approve aid to state education and infrastructure and could credibly point to their patrons for pork barrel spending rather than each other. On the other hand, maybe senators would be better able to reduce budget deficits by making hard taxing and spending decisions that are insulated from the public’s outrage. There would undoubtedly be deadlock in legislatures with narrow or split party control—of the kind resembling the months-long Minnesota recount. That would, of course, lead to backroom deals and vote-trading, which the public is probably sick of.

But for the million-dollar question, does direct election of senators actually result in more responsive and responsible public policy—who knows for sure?
Comment: I'll provide my opinion to the authors question; no, it does not. Read the papers linked on the right hand side of this page by Rosen, Hoebeke, and Zywicki for an explanation and answer.

US Senators are more responsive to special interests than to the states or citizenry, while creating irresponsible laws infringing upon our natural rights and spending at levels never witnessed in our history placing a tremendous burden on the back of future generations.

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