Do you even know what the 17th Amendment is ? Probably not.
Well, here’s what it says:
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.
Effectively, the 17th Amendment completely abrogated the intentions of the Founding Fathers when they wrote the Constitution. As originally intended, the House of Representatives was intended to represent the people. It was popularly elected every two years. To be a member of the House of Representative, you only had to be 25 years old and live in the state in which you ran for office. The Senate, on the other hand, was intended to represent the states. Each state received two members regardless of its size or population. To be a member, you had to be at least 30 years old. More importantly, however, Senators were chosen by the Legislatures of their respective states, not by popular election.
For the most part, the system worked. The Senate was intended to be a check on the popular will represented by the House of Representatives, and it acted as such. During the time that Senators were chosen by Legislatures, the Senate was populated by men such as Daniel Webster, Stephen Douglas, John C. Calhoun, and countless others who understood that they were representing the interests of their home states.
By 1912, Populism was sweeping the nation. Indirect election of Senators was seen as undemocratic. Hence, the 17th Amendment passed easily. Since then, the Senate has been a shadow of its former self. Though the filibuster and similar procedural rules serve as a check against rash action, the Senate is as much subject to the popular will as the House of Represenatives. The result has been the unchecked expansion of the state and, more importantly, the unchecked expansion of the growth of the federal goverment.
Would either, or both, of these things have happened without the 17th Amendment ? Perhaps, but I think it would have been far more difficult.
Now, at least in some circles, the question of the repeal of the 17th Amendment is being discussed. Last week, Glenn Reynolds wrote an article on the issue and linked to this National Review article on the subject. Elsewhere, fellow LLP’er Eric Cowperthwaite at Eric’s Grumbles Before The Grave has made the same argument.
My take on the subject is this — from a procedural point of view the 17th Amendment is certainly one of the factors that has made the expansion of Federal power, and the erosion of Federalism, more easy to accomplish. Returning to direct election of Senators *might* have a positive impact, but that will only happen if the Senators elected have a proper understanding of their role under the Constitution.
Hat Tip: Eric’s Grumbles Before The Grave
Updated 9/20/05 to correct a typo