We are in an interesting point in U.S. history and the U.S. Senate, one of the most powerful government institutions, plays a critical role.
Therefore, I believe it to be advantageous to discuss the 17th Amendment, the only amendment in American history to change or restructure Congress.
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.
The 17th Amendment, ratified April 8th, 1913, is rather simple. It states that the Senate will be made up of Senators who are elected by the people, serve for six years and retain one vote in the Senate.
While it does not seem overwhelmingly controversial or odd today to think of the Senate as a popularly elected government body, for around 150 years, the Senate was not a popularly elected body.
How Congress Was First Established
During the creation of the new government, the founders had two end goals in mind with the Senate. The first: establish a firm foundation of federalism–the firm representation of the states in the federal government. Secondly, they wanted to bolster bicameralism, the division of the legislature into two very distinct chambers.
James Madison says: “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit. It may even be necessary to guard against dangerous encroachments by still further precautions. As the weight of the legislative authority requires that it should be thus divided…”
In other words, the founders, highly concerned with figuring out how to preserve liberty, felt that breaking the legislature into two distinct units, with varying modes of operation and election, would help curb potential abusive legislative power. Hence, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The House: meant to be the people’s chamber, directly connected to the constituency, made up of younger minds, larger, more volatile and easily swayed by the masses and emotion. It is essentially the “voice of the people” since it represents small districts of each. Members should be highly engaged with their constituencies and highly connected to the citizens’ wishes and desires. The fact that the members serve two year terms increases their attachment to their constituencies. This direct connection to the citizenry is the reason why the founders gave the House the exclusive power of raising bills on revenue and taxation. Should the government change or increase taxation on their citizenry, it must be done so at permission and will of the people and thus handled by the chamber most connected to that citizenry.
The Senate: meant to “restrain…if possible, the fury of democracy” (Edmund Randolph). The Senate was named after the Roman Senate institution, and comes from the Latin “Senatus”, an assembly of the senior, or more directly “senex”, which means, “old” and “wise”. Hence, the Senate, made up of older individuals, elected for six year terms, and elected by the state legislatures, was meant to be the opposite and balancing counterpart to the House. Members were less directly connected to the volatile citizenry by virtue of being elected by the state legislatures and serving longer terms. This was supposed to create a sense of calm and stability in the Senate. Further, the Senate was supposed to act as a direct line of connection between the states and the federal government.
Dr. Zywicki, professor of law at George Mason University, says: “The most effective way to do this [preserve the power of the states against the national government] would be for Senators to be elected by state legislatures, thereby aligning their self-interest with the protection of the state legislature’s powers. Moreover, because of the role played by the Senate in confirmation of federal judges and Executive branch officials, Senators elected by state legislatures might be expected to be more cognizant of the positions of these appointees on matters of federal-state relations. In light of the subsequent controversies regarding the Senate that eventually culminated in the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment, it is interesting to note that the proposal gained almost universal support at the Constitutional Convention and was little-debated at the Convention.”
The Senate was created to act as both the stabilizing force against an emotional and volatile House and also as a direct line of control by the states over the federal government.
A Brief History of the Amendment
The Senate never quite functioned as the founders would have liked, although, it did provide states a bit more power in the federal government than they now possess. However, by the late 1800s many states had almost done away with legislature-run Senate races.
“In 1890s, many states started holding direct primaries for Senate, reducing the degree of influence state legislatures had over selection. Some states went further and began using something known as the “Oregon System,” under which state legislative candidates were required to state on the ballot whether they would abide by the results of a formally non-binding direct election for U.S. Senator. By 1908, twenty-eight of the forty-five states used the Oregon System or some other form of direct elections.” (Constitution Center)
In other words, the states governments started allowing the people to have a say in the Senate races far before the amendment actually passed. “The Seventeenth Amendment was seen as part of a broader effort to make an end-run around the control that parties, machines, and special interests had over state legislatures.” (Constitution Center)
So, the amendment was introduced, passed, passed through the states and was ratified in 1913. It’s now part of the Constitution, making it part of the government’s job description and thereby Constitutional. Senators are no longer selected by state legislatures, but rather, by the popular vote of the states’ citizenry.
The Modern Day Effect
Scholars have had a hard time pin-pointing the specific outcomes of such a dramatic change. In some cases, there seems to be little change. Special interests still hold sway and Senate races are still more important than state level races.
However, there is no denying the effect the amendment has had on the relationship between the federal government and the states, not to mention the change in bicameralism. The 17th Amendment was yet another notch in the long belt of growing federal power, tipping the balance of power more heavily in the federal direction. This has prompted a heightened federal vulnerability to special interest groups since Senators and Representatives are now both elected by the people. Further, all of the judicial and bureaucratic nominations of the Senate are less about pleases the states and more about power, pleases special interests, and assuaging citizen demands.
Ultimately, the Senate is less the voice of reason and stability provided by the states and rather the voice of long term elected politicians.
Today, the Senate holds more power than almost any other institution in America. It holds within it’s hands the power to convict any impeached federal officer, the power to allow court packing, the power to allow or stall any major changes to the court system, the power to stop or move forward any major policy, the power to affect foreign ministers and executive officials, to name a few. And while these were all once supposed to be powers the states had say over via the Senate, the states now act as side line spectators of a federal government doing as it wills.
The Senate is the linchpin. When it’s fighting for the Constitution, it’s great; when it’s fighting against the Constitution, it’s detrimental.
The Liberty Belle