In 1913, the 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted, mandating that U.S. senators be elected by the people of respective states, rather than state legislatures. This was a bad idea that continues to cause problems. Here’s why.
When the Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia in 1787, the Founders were divided over what representation in Congress would look like. They came up with the Great Compromise: the House of Representatives would be based on population and elected by the people, while the Senate would have equal representation from each state, and senators elected by their state legislatures.
In 1913, at the height of the Progressive Era, the American people voted to popularly elect senators, just like the House representatives. This was done under the principle that if some democracy had thus far been a good thing, more democracy would be better. While that sentiment may be right in some cases, it’s not appropriate in this one.
First and foremost, having senators accountable to state legislatures is a way to protect federalism. The states, in the Founders’ vision, were largely autonomous, sovereign entities, not regional outposts of Washington, and U.S. senators were the states’ delegates to the federal Congress. In other words, the state governments were an integral part of the federal government and senators were, in a sense, real advocates of states’ rights. Now that the link has been broken, state governments are reduced to finding other ways – hiring lobbyists, for example – to have their voice heard in Washington.
Furthermore, the Founders’ original system was designed to act as a check on the growth of federal power. Since their constituents were state legislators, the early U.S. senators had a strong incentive to limit the federal government’s activities to the things the states couldn’t do themselves – foreign affairs, interstate trade and the like. Temporary expansions of federal power (for circumstances such as war) were actually temporary then. Once the crisis had passed, the federal government returned to its proper size. Now, every expansion of federal power becomes the new minimum. Centralization has taken on a ratchet effect, where Washington can only move in one direction: bigger.
What happens when senators aren’t accountable to their state governments? Let’s take one recent and notorious example: Obamacare. Twenty-seven states have sued the federal government to have Obamacare overturned. If the states had their say in the national government like they ought to, that should have been 54 senators (at least) opposed to the bill. Instead, 60 senators voted for the bill, and we’re left with the continuously-unfolding trainwreck that Obamacare is today.
Worried about the reduction of democracy? Don’t be. First, contrary to popular belief, the United States is not a democracy. It’s a constitutional republic with some democratic elements (like the House), and some completely undemocratic elements (the Supreme Court). Second, the Senate itself isn’t a particularly democratic institution. Consider the filibuster: a single senator can prevent further action on a bill, and a full three-fifths of his or her colleagues are needed to override it.
For that matter, the Constitution itself is fairly undemocratic; the emphasis on individual liberties comes at the expense of majority rule, and changing the Constitution requires supermajorities of both states and Congress. The Founders were just as concerned about the tyranny of the majority as they were about the king of England.
Bottom line: Federalism – the balance of power between federal, state, and local governments – is a crucial but often overlooked part of the American system of government. Giving the states back their voice in the federal government would be an excellent first step toward restoring that balance and reining in federal excess.