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Who really supports a repeal of the 17th amendment?

I recently got into a discussion on this topic in the LinkedIn forums with Jeff Stucker.Here’s the text of our discussion:


My initial question:

Are we truly all that fired-anxious to abdicate voter control over senatorial appointments? Really?

Contrary to the latest Tea Party talking points, repealing the 17th amendment actually does nothing to remove power from the federal government. The power is currently with the people, through special elections and the state Governors. (In some states interpretation) Repealing the 17th would put the power back into the hand of politicians; state politicians to be sure, but it’s still not an election by the people.

Wouldn’t a wiser move be to abolish the appointment-by-Governor, and leave the rest of the 17th amendment alone so that all appointments of vacant positions are directly elected by the people? Who benefits by this repeal movement? Not the people of the states, for those states who do vote directly now get their votes taken away from them. Not the Federal government, because they don’t have a say in the matter now as it is. So who benefits here and why do some feel it is so vital to remove the right of the people of each state and hand it over entirely to politicians of that state?

Special interest groups stand to gain the most from this movement, think about it: Special interests lobby and donate to all politicians, and as groups, they have the ability to fund those kinds of activities while private citizens are severely restricted in their ability to do so. (Thank McCain for that particular shiv in your back) So when it comes to a state legislature to appoint a Senator, who has their ears already bent in their direction? You and I can voice our opinions all we want, but unless a landslide of public opinion puts the fear public wrath squarely in front of those politicians, it’s the special interests who pay the big money to have lobbyists standing by to whisper sweet nothings into the ears of every politician alive.

So why is the Tea Party so fired up about this?

Why should true conservatives even draw a single breath in defense of repealing the 17th amendment?

Note:Some would make the argument that the 17th amendment steels the states powers from them and by doing so, the federal government consolidates too much of the power belonging to the states unto itself by dictating to the states the manner by which unscheduled congressional vacancies are filled.In defense of this argument, the following ideas are put forward:

-Comments by Jeff Stucker (used with permission)

In terms of structural impact to our government, the 17th Amendment was the worst amendment to the Constitution, and absolutely should be repealed.

Currently, there is no power structure in Washington DC which represents the states. I’m not speaking of the people in the states, I’m talking about the states themselves.

The founding fathers knew exactly what they were doing in setting up checks and balances in our government, and the 17th Amendment destroyed one of the most valuable — that is, a check on the centralization of power from the states to the federal government.

I’ve held this position for years but had little hope of its actual repeal because it seemed too esoteric for the average person. Now it’s quite refreshing to see a movement of people – every day, salt of the earth people — who know their Constitutional history well enough to understand the consequences at stake in this debate.

-My response

OK, I may be missing something here, but we do actually have a structure of power sharing that directly represents the states. Have we forgotten both Houses of congress? Our representatives directly represent the states themselves. That is the very foundation of our system of government; that the representatives directly elected by the people of each state stand guard over their own state’s interests every day that congress is in session.

The 17th amendment greatly reduced the rampant corruption that was occurring at the time, and reduced the amount of time that states remained unrepresented in congress and as far as it went, it has been fairly effective in that respect. Is it perfect? of course not, but to throw the baby out with the bathwater is no solution either.

To repeal the 17th amendment is to accomplish exactly the same end that repeal enthusiasts state they are fighting against; namely handing off the rights of the people to elect their own state Senators.I don’t care if it’s a federal politician or a state politician; it’s still giving up my voting rights to a politician.

To assume that anyone who doesn’t hold the same beliefs as you is ignorant is itself more than slightly elitists and condescending to those of us who feel that repealing the 17th amendment is a shortsighted and dangerous knee-jerk reaction to a problem that deserves more thought and consideration.

You are right though, it does seem that the idea of repealing the 17th amendment is indeed too esoteric for us “normal” people. It takes vastly more than a just select few, self assigned authorities to validate any movement, especially one with such far-reaching ramifications as repealing any amendment to our constitution.

-Comments by Jeff Stucker

“Representing the people of the state is different than representing the government of the state.”

We all know why we have three branches of government — separation of powers. The federal system was based on a similarly motivated separation of powers. You embed into the system checks and balances. Those checks and balances are designed to go far beyond the power of an individual’s vote in a general election, to structurally and explicitly prevent consolidation of power.

If the federal government takes a dollar instead of the state government taking a dollar, the individual does not feel the difference right away. But the state government knows immediately when it loses power to the federal government. That is why the senators were initially accountable to the state governments, so they would have a natural check on consolidating their power into Washington DC.

Right now, in Washington DC, the president is accountable to the legislature and judiciary through risk of impeachment; the legislature is accountable to the executive through veto and the judiciary through rulings, and the judiciary is accountable to the legislature and executive through new legislation. This accountability is built into the structure of the system and exerts continuous force even in between the elections; however, with the repeal of the 17th Amendment, no power structure in Washington DC is accountable to state governments. Without this accountability, aka check and balance, consolidation of power is inevitable because unchecked power always grows.

In other words, power corrupts, and consolidation of power hastens corruption.

My response

[Jeff’s] argument still does not bring to light anything about the 17th amendment that takes the rights away from the states. In fact it does exactly the opposite. It ensures that each state maintains representation by eliminating the prolonged absence of each state’s elected representatives within congress by mandating that authority directly to the people of each state. (or to the governor, depending upon your state’s interpretation)

There is no valid point to repealing the 17th amendment, because there is no substantive benefit to be had for the states by doing so. The State doesn’t get anything out of it, other than to take the power out of the hands of the people it most directly affects. The only ones who stand to benefit are the state politicians, who are supposed to be doing the bidding of the people anyway.

To assign some mystical association between giving the people a direct say in any matter concerning their governance and handing the state’s power over to the Federal government is taking such a giant leap of illogic as to become completely indefensible.

One could readily raise the question of whether this drive by the Tea Party for this particular item of their agenda might actually be more truly driven by the need to bang upon the loudest drum they can find to stir up voter angst in an attempt to remain relevant during an election year.

Comments by Jeff Stucker

Bob, you fail to acknowledge the main point of the argument. Power comes from the people and is delegated. Before the 17th Amendment, power delegated to the state governments was then delegated to the Senate. In other words, the Senators not only answered to the people directly, they answered to the state governments as the intermediate source of their power. With all power in Washington DC coming directly from the people, now there is no overt force to keep power distributed to the states.

Here are two articles that illustrate the impact of unchecked federal power.

Federal Workers Make Twice That of Private Sector

Radical Britain
The unlikely revolutionary

In the latter article, scroll down to see the second chart, titled “Top heavy. Central-government spending as % of total government spending.” You’ll see that two-thirds of government money in the US flows through Washington DC. That statistic ought to get any limited-government conservative riled up, especially when compared to governments in that same chart that we like to think of as more “socialist” than we are, yet who have much more distributed, decentralized government spending.

With more accountability directly to state governments in order to keep their jobs, you’d have Senators incentivized to vote down federal spending and send government work back home to their bosses, that is, back to the states. You can be sure that state governments would love to pull some of those high-paying federal jobs back into the states, under their own control. But they have no voice.

Remember, the currency of politics is power; how it is distributed is the essence of checks and balances. Without the currency of power (in this case, the election of the Senators) flowing *through* the state governments, the states have no voice in Washington. I’m not talking about the power of the people, I’m talking about the power of the state government itself as a competing force against centralized government. “The State doesn’t get anything out of it”? On the contrary, the State would have a powerful veto power: if a Senator consistently votes in a way that takes decision making authority out of the hands of the people who put him or her in office, you can bet the state legislature will not re-select that person. Repealing the 17th Amendment restores that lever of authority given to state legislatures, to directly influence decisions in Washington. A Senator would be hard pressed, for example, to ignore a resolution by his home state legislature on an issue that affects states’ rights; ignore enough, and you’re out of a job next cycle.

This is indeed a valid point, a reason to repeal the 17th Amendment. You can disagree with it all you want, but so far you have not even acknowledged it. Bottom line: repealing the 17th Amendment would reintroduce a subtle question behind “what is the responsibility of government”, and that is, “what is the responsibility of what level of government”.

-In closing

Jeff is correct of course, I did not acknowledge his main point because I believe that he is holding on desperately to the concept that giving power directly to the people is somehow taking power away from the state as a whole. I dismiss that entire concept as being misguided and missing the entire point. Giving power directly to the people also empowers the state as a whole because it removes many of the mitigating factors from the equation. Our Senators in Congress are directly answerable to the people who elected them and as such are already (In those cases where the states have not distorted the process to include gubernatorial appointments) effective in their advocacy for their respective states. They keep their jobs when they do what we elected them for and lose their jobs when they do not.

Unchecked power is at the heart of what is wrong with our government today and fighting that is at the very core of all conservative principles, so I need not go into the evils of overspending our grandchildren into poverty, Jeff has outlined and linked much of that information already.

Remember: The currency of politics is indeed power, and in a government truly of, by and for the people; there is no substitute for the awesome power of a general election.

We will continue to disagree strenuously of this topic because each of us holds particular ideas to be foundationally unchangeable, and as such, it is these conversations across that ideological divide that brings those ideas and concepts into the light of day where people can read, evaluate and then make up their own minds.


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