Meaning of the Seventeenth Amendment
Prior to ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, two Senators from each state were selected by each state’s legislature to serve essentially as ambassadors for six years in the United States Congress. Following the Seventeenth Amendment, Senators were elected by popular vote in each state.
Why does the Seventeenth Amendment matter?
The Seventeenth Amendment stripped the state legislatures of their representation in Congress, thus stripping the states of their ability to defend themselves against unconstitutional assumptions of power by the federal government.
The Framers of the Constitution listed the powers of the federal government in Article I, Section 8. However, the Constitution is just a piece of paper/parchment and cannot enforce itself. So additional structural features were necessary to ensure the federal government would not step beyond its delegated, enumerated powers.
For legislation to pass Congress, the legislation would have to be passed by the representatives of the people in the House of Representatives, and by the representatives of the states in the Senate. In Federalist 62, James Madison said the Senate was, “an additional impediment… against improper acts of federal legislation. No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people, and then, of a majority of the states.”
At the Philadelphia/Constitutional Convention in 1787, George Mason said the appointment of Senators by state legislatures would provide the states with a, “power of self defense” against the federal government and unconstitutional federal laws.
James Iredell in North Carolina’s ratification convention said the Senate was the body charged with ensuring the state governments, “be preserved.”
Why Did the States Disenfranchise Themselves?
Attempts had been made as early as the 1820s and 1830s to have Senators elected by the people of each state, rather than having them appointed by the state legislatures. By the time of the “Progressive” era in the late 1800s and early 1900s, more than thirty states had moved to a direct primary system whereby the state legislature agreed to select Senators based on the popular results of these primary elections. Pressure to propose and ratify an amendment were brought on by the, “Progressives,” who generally wanted a stronger central government. The “Progressives” believed greater “Democracy” would fix perceived problems brought on by industrialization.
Sadly, debates over the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment evince virtually no discussion or concern about the role of the Senate as guardians of the reserved powers of the states. Whether it should be blamed on ignorance or willful disregard, the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment is clear evidence that the people of the United States, and their representatives at both the state and federal levels, no longer seemed to know or care about the critical role of federalism in American government.
Post-1913 United States Senate
The Senate today is a Super House of Representatives. There is no difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives today, other than the number of representatives and their respective term lengths.
Senators today are representatives who hold office for six years at a time and are elected by popular vote by the people of each state. They hold no allegiance to their states, other than by fighting for tax dollars in the federal trough and siphoning those dollars back to their politically favored constituencies. Senators have no concern at all about the constitutionality of federal legislation and could care less about their original role as guardians of the reserved powers of the state governments.
Seventeenth Amendment – Additional Structural Problems
A frequently overlooked criticism of the Seventeenth Amendment pertains to federal judges and other federal officials, whose appointment requires confirmation by the Senate.
If Senators were still appointed by the state legislatures, (i.e., if the role of Senators today were still to guard the reserved powers of the states), confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees would likely look very different. Since Senators would be appointed by their state’s legislature, the Senators would likely have an incentive to ensure Supreme Court nominees had a reasonable track record for not trampling upon the reserved powers of the state governments. As such, these judges would be more likely to be honest and relatively faithful to the plain meaning of the Constitution in their rulings.
Seventeenth Amendment – Potential Reform or Repeal?
The Senate will not be restored and the Seventeenth Amendment will not be repealed. Americans today are taught from birth to worship “Democracy.” Any attempt to restore the Senate would be met with overwhelming criticism that proponents of repealing the Seventeenth Amendment were against “Democracy” and the right of the people to elect their representatives.
United States Constitution – Seventeenth Amendment
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.
When vacancies happen in the representation of any state in the Senate, the executive authority of such state shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, that the legislature of any state may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.
This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.