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Why repealing the 17th Amendment wouldn't fix the Senate

A proposed reform that would get rid of direct election of senators and bring back the corruption and stagnation of the Gilded Age. What’s not to like?

An illustration of Abraham Lincoln during one of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.
U.S. Senate hopeful Abraham Lincoln inserts himself in Illinois’ 1858 state legislative elections.
Kean Collection via Getty

Last week, after the dramatic failure of the Republican health reform plan on the floor of the US Senate, former presidential candidate and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee called for the repeal of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which created popular elections for senators. This call was hardly out of the blue — a repeal of the 17th has been a mid-tier Tea Party priority for years now. The passage of such an amendment repeal seems pretty unlikely, but what would it actually do?

As it happens, I wrote a field paper on the passage of the 17th Amendment, back when I assumed it was a safely obscure topic. It’s not entirely clear what problems would be solved by turning the selection of senators back to state legislatures.

It’s worth thinking about the logic of the passage of this amendment, which was passed by Congress in 1912 and ratified by the states in 1913. It took just a year for three-quarters of the state legislatures to ratify an amendment that gave away a vital power of theirs. Why would they do this?

In part, it’s because this took place during an era of rapid government reform. Four amendments (income tax, direct election of senators, Prohibition, and women’s suffrage) were ratified between 1913 and 1920, making it the most amendment-friendly seven-year stretch since the 1790s.

This spirit of reform didn’t simply emerge from nowhere, of course. The Progressive movement came about in response to a great many abuses and corruption cases dating from the late 1800s. Political parties were seen as overly strong and corrupt, and as exerting undue control over governmental processes. Through their influence over the appointment of senators, writes Charles Stewart, “The Gilded Age Senate became in part a college of state party bosses.”

The direct election of senators (like the direct primary, which was also becoming popular at this time) was seen as a possible remedy. A party boss or wealthy conglomerate might be able to buy off a few dozen state legislators to pick a favorite senator, but they couldn’t buy off thousands or millions of voters.

Picking senators was a power that many legislators simply didn’t want. In several states, it absolutely paralyzed legislative activity and contributed to the polarization of the chamber. In the same way that many legislatures have eagerly handed over redistricting powers to nonpartisan commissions, they sought to outsource the selection of senators.

What’s more, the selection of senators had a way of taking over state legislative elections. It’s worth remembering that the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 occurred during state legislative elections; both candidates were vying to become a senator by advocating for the election of legislators who would pick them. Illinois’s state legislative elections that year were basically a proxy war between the two Senate candidates. By the turn of the 20th century, thanks to legislative selection of senators, national politics were controlling state legislative elections, rather than states controlling their senators.

In short, the 17th Amendment was embraced by legislators and the public as a way to both reduce corruption and take a divisive issue off legislators’ agendas. It’s not at all clear that state legislators want this task back, and there’s little evidence that the public knows or cares much about this effort. (There’s also not much history of successful campaigns to make politics less democratic.)

Also, unlike many Progressive reforms, it’s hard to detect many unintended, negative consequences of the 17th Amendment. Indeed, one of the surprising things about this amendment was how little effect it had on political outcomes. In 1914, the first year of Senate elections, every Senate incumbent who sought reelection (each of whom had been appointed by a state legislature) retained his seat. There were a few modest effects — post-amendment senators were less likely to emanate from political dynasties, and turnover was a bit higher. But it didn’t dramatically transform American politics.

So it’s not entirely clear what conservatives would gain through a successful return of this power to the state legislatures. To be sure, there would be more Republicans in the Senate if state legislators got to pick senators this year, but it’s unlikely Republicans will maintain their current numerical advantage in state legislatures. For the most part, this effort, if successful, would take away a power voters have that they seem to like having, and give it to a group of politicians who don’t want it, all in an effort to recreate the political problems of the Gilded Age. Where’s the upside?

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