The Seventeenth Amendment & Corruption

You probably remember in your high school government class learning about the 17th Amendment, and how it provided for the direct election of senators through popular vote, doing away with the older system of selection through state legislatures. At first glance, the direct election of senators seems like a good thing, for it is more “democratic” in nature. A second look, however, reveals broader and less obviously good ramifications.

In Federalist 62, James Madison is discussing the Senate to the People of New York when he writes:

It is equally unnecessary to dilate [to expand] on the appointment of senators by the State legislatures… It is recommended by the double advantage of favoring a select appointment, and of giving to the State governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government as must secure the authority of the former, and may form a convenient link between the two systems [State and Federal Government].

The state selection of Senators was essential to the Founders’ view of proper republican government. They believed that the Senate would shield against improper acts of legislation, for no law could be passed without the concurrence of first the majority of the people (the House of Representatives) and a majority of the representatives of the states (the Senate). Now, with a more “democratic” legislature, states have lost their authority over the federal government.

You may be thinking, “Well, obviously there was some problem with the way state legislatures appointed Senators, because they passed a constitutional amendment to change the process.” This is true — intimidation and bribery were common terms associated with the selection of senators prior to the 17th Amendment. From 1866 to 1906, nine bribery cases were brought before the Senate and forty-five deadlocks took place in twenty states between 1891 and 1905, resulting in numerous Senate seat vacancies. 

Despite these serious concerns that led to the proposition of the 17th Amendment, such problems could have been remedied without damaging the integrity of founders’ vision of the Senate.

The 17th Amendment does not quell the wicked nature of human beings. Mankind will always consist of some who may be inclined to cheat, lie, and bribe their way to secure power and influence. If the 17th Amendment was repealed, the people would hold direct sovereign power over the state legislatures that would appoint the Senators. The people would be accountable for who the state legislature appoints, and the state legislatures would damage their chances of reelection if they elect someone radical to the federal Senate seats. This is how republican government was thought to function.

Justifying the creation of the 17th amendment with claims of greater democracy is exactly what the Founders tried to avoid. A bicameral legislature that is at the helm  of majority public opinion not only damages the separation of powers within the legislative branch but also forces one federal legislature to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions held by the sovereign — the American people.

Senators would also be held accountable by their states. If a Senator failed to oppose federal legislation that would infringe on state rights, then state legislatures would remove that senator and replace them with someone that holds the interest of the state above the federal governments agenda. Dividing, personal issues such as marriage, abortion, education, healthcare, gun rights, and drug rights, would become less of a propellant for constitutional crisis, and rather become more local issues.

To conclude, the 17th Amendment was proposed to combat the fraud and vice that enveloped the Senate appointment process. Despite this, we still see Senators trying to sell their seats, and political machines trying to place and buy people into power. Having the populace hold direct control over the election of Senators does not calm the vice mankind has the capacity to wield; it rather reduces the authority that the states hold over the federal government, damaging the republican principles of our nation.

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