The Seventeeth Amendment provided for direct election of Senators, which, say some, is a Bad Thing. This Mises Institute piece presents the case against the Seventeenth:

[T]here are no checks and balances available to the states over federal power or over Congress itself in any area. However, in the history of our country, it was not always this way. In the original design by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution, there was an effective check on Congress through the state legislatures' power to appoint (and remove) United States Senators.

The 17th Amendment caused a failure in the federalist structure, federal deficit spending, inappropriate federal mandates, and federal control over a number of state institutions.

However, the Baseball Crank finds three contemporary justifications for the Seventeenth:

I. Accountability:
[D]irect election means direct accountability to the voters. It's true, of course, that the voters have a checkered record of holding federal officeholders accountable on issues of spending, regulation and arrogation of federal power. But time and time again we have seen that the directly elected branches of government, and only the directly elected branches of government, will stand up for conservative principles on taxes, national security, and especially social issues. Why? In part because of the "elite consensus" phenomenon, where people who answer only to other politicians end up listening only to other politicians and the things they believe in, rather than being compelled to tailor their ears as well as their messages to the population as a whole.

II. Spending:
One of the developments that disturbs me most about federal spending, whether it's done through pork-barrel earmarks, block grants, or entitlement programs, is the tendency to use the vast revenue-raising powers of the federal government to raise money, and then kick it back to states and localities to spend. More local control of how funds are spent may be the lesser of evils here, but either way, state and local officials are getting the retail political benefits of handing out goodies, without being held responsible for having extracted the money from taxpayers for things they might not have agreed to pay for if given the choice. Because the money comes from the vast federal till, people are less apt to think of it as coming out of their own, local community. If you think we could solve this accountability shell game by creating a class of Senators whose only constituency is state legislators ... well, it just wouldn't work.

III. Gerrymandering:
Consider: the Senate is the only legislative body among the two Houses of Congress and the various state legislatures where the elected officials don't get to choose their voters. At present, state legislatures (or, in a few states, nonpartisan commissions) get to draw the district lines for the state legislature and for the House. And those lines not only lead to a lot of partisan mischief but also to efforts to place incumbent-entrenchment above even the interests of the parties.

Practicality over principle? Not necessarily, Crank says:

Federal power, federal spending and federal regulation, of course, have grown exponentially in an almost unbroken march since 1913, and opponents of the 17th Amendment often argue that making Senators once again answerable to the States would thus shift power back from the federal government to the states. In my view, that bell cannot be un-rung, at least in this way, and the desire to make Senators into creatures of the state legislatures fundamentally misunderstands the way politicians behave. More specifically, critics of the 17th Amendment fail to understand that the goals of repeal would fail utterly so long as its companion, the 16th Amendment, remains on the books.

"The way politicians behave," in fact, may be at the heart of it all. The Framers surely never envisioned the Professional Politician as we know him; they trusted that the people would put up their best men, yet year after election year we're presented with a panoply of the worst. Term limits, you say? Fine, if you make them stick. In Oklahoma, what we see on a regular basis is the ghastly spectacle of the term-limited politician seeking another term in a different office with no such limits, or contriving to have his former ballot position occupied by another family member, be it child, spouse, whatever. The lust for power, it appears, never quite goes away.

Which may be why we'll probably never get rid of the 16th Amendment and the hated income tax, even if alternative financing should become available. (Fritz Schranck's suspicions are typical: "I fully expect some future Congress to return to the income tax whenever it felt the need for more cash.") What power, after all, is greater than the power to compel the population to pay for things they may or may not want or need? The Democrats have long been infatuated with the idea; the Republicans of late have tried to outdo the Democrats, with the results you'd expect.

Is there any hope? Maybe, maybe not. I console myself with the thought that at least one bad Amendment the 18th was rooted out of the Constitution. And if this sort of thing can be done once, I have to believe it can be done again.

The Vent

  8 December 2006

 | Vent menu |

 Copyright © 2006 by Charles G. Hill