Senators, Reconsidered

As the Roberts nomination hearings drag on and people get a chance to see just how stupid and pompous many senators are, on both sides of the aisle, a lot of people have begun thinking about the Seventeenth Amendment, which provided for direct election of senators. Some are now saying that this was a bad thing, and would like it repealed.

Some history is in order, since almost nobody knows how senators were chosen at first. Originally, the only body of government that was elected by the people was the House of Representatives; the president was elected by specially-chosen delegates to the Electoral College, of course, but senators were sent to Washington by the various state legislatures. Often the Senator would be a powerful former member of the state legislature; just as often he would be a tool of more powerful members of the legislature. But it is significant that the more powerful house of Congress was filled with people intimately connected to and responsible to the state governments.

At present, the state governments have practically no input into the workings of the Federal government, particularly not with respect to the formation of law. It is unsurprising that Congress frequently offers huge Federal grants to the states on the condition that they change their laws to match what their betters in Washington desire. In effect, Congress is now dictating policy to the states on a regular basis. This would not happen so often if the state governments themselves chose their senators.

(Indeed, that was the intention of the original arrangement. The Senate is primarily arranged to protect the rights of individual states, with equal representation for each government instead of for each citizen.)

At any rate, because senators are now subject to the people instead of their legislatures, instead of being an elite of the elites, many have the same general characteristics as most of their compatriots in the House: cheap populism and parochialism. This is something of an unfair libel; yet while once the Senate was known as a seat of skillful oratory, now Senate proceedings are boring and forgettable. I challenge my readers to come up with one quoteworthy speech from the last twenty years on a legislative issue…

For myself, I would much prefer that the 17th Amendment were repealed. It would refocus voters' attention back to the state legislatures, many of which have taken the opportunity granted by their relative unimportance to become backward, corrupt cesspools of political idiocy of the first order. But I would also like the House of Representatives to be abolished entirely and replaced by direct popular voting on legislation, just to make things interesting.

Hmm. I really should upload my paper on that subject.


Mike Maller said...

I can't speak to the Senate oratory issue, but I think you have kind of built in an argument against repealing the 17th Amendment in your argument for it.

"It would refocus voters' attention back to the state legislatures, many of which have taken the opportunity granted by their relative unimportance to become backward, corrupt cesspools of political idiocy of the first order."

Why would you wish to place more power into backward, corrupt cesspools? If you want to do this merely to refocus the voters' attention, there must be better ways.

Political corruption is, in fact, one of the more persuasive arguments against having the state legislatures appoint senators. The legislatures, being so much smaller than the popular voting base, is much more succeptable to corruption. I don't think it wise to risk such important positions by placing them not only within reach, but on the table in front of political machines. At least make them work for it.

As far as the House idea goes... yeah, it would certainly be interesting. :¬)

Being a great distruster of government in general, it does hold a certain amount of appeal. However, it would take away the internal check within the Legislative Branch. Furthermore, we have a hard enough time getting people to vote as things are now, can you imagine the kind of attrition that would take place if you asked the voters to take over the House's position?

I should read your site earlier... too damn thought provoking. :¬)

Soccer Dad said...

I once read the Federalist papers. (Well not all of them, but sections thereof.) Very good stuff.
What I found most intersting was that political parties were frowned upon as being, I guess, a low form of political organizing. Originally it was thought that the Senate would represent state interests. So wouldn't your proposal also have to take into account, that despite the vast wisdom of the founding fathers (and I'm not saying that facetiously), partisan interests have superseded state interests and senators may be expected to look out for their parties instead of their states?