1913: America's Worst Year - Election Reform

Direct election of senators was a disastrous change.

This is a multi-part series examining the worst year in American History: 1913.

When the Constitution was being hammered out, the representatives of the smaller states were worried about their fate if the larger states had more representation, as befit their greater population.  After some back and forth, Robert Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, both of Connecticut, offered what is now known as the "Great Compromise".

The House of Representatives would represent the people with the representatives allocated based on the state's population.  This would be the "people's" house.

The other part of the Compromise was to have each state represented by two senators.  The Senate would then represent the "States".  This was a brilliant compromise that balanced the power between the small and large states (small and large referring to population, not geographic size).

This compromise also enshrined the idea of state sovereignty.  This was accomplished by having the senators selected by the states' legislatures.  This meant that the Senate represented the interests of the several states, not directly the interests of the citizens of the states.

The Senate was what made a Federal government work.  All legislation needed to be in the interest of the states themselves, not just the people of the states.  While the House was responsible for introducing bills to spend money, the Senate would be careful because these bills would impact their states.

Their positions in the Senate were based on the wishes of the state legislatures.  This arrangement made for natural term limits as the legislatures would change and it was unlikely a Senator could make a life's career out of it.  The key point to remember is that the Constitution made sure the interests of the various states were served through the Senate.

The concept of "states' rights" was very important to the original thirteen colonies.  Each state had a character of its own.  Each state had an economy and culture unique.  It was the Great Compromise that helped the states, particularly the smaller states, feel comfortable that they wouldn't be overrun by the larger states or the national government.

The states knew that they had control of the senators and that the senators all had an equal voice.  Even though the House was responsible for spending bills, the Senate could put a halt to anything that began to be burdensome for the states.  It was an arrangement carefully debated and discussed.

But in 1913, that all changed.  Of course, there were many things that led to that fateful passing of the amendment.  Mostly they related to state's senates not being able to elect senators for various reasons.

Rather than solve that problem, populist pressure lead to the passage of the 17th Amendment, making senators directly elected by voters.

They are no different from representatives.  This meant that the Senate was now filled with people who are more concerned with their re-election than with the interests of their home state.  The delicate balance of the Great Compromise was lost.  The states no longer have a voice in the federal government of the United States.

We now have people whose whole professional lives have been spent in the Senate.  Robert Byrd, Strom Thurmond, Ted Kennedy, and other have lived their life in the Senate, on the public dole.  Their actions in the Senate are based on what they need to do to get re-elected, or possibly make a run for the Presidency.  The interests of the state from which they serve are placed behind their own interests.

Not only did the change lead to, in effect, Senators-for-life, but it also has allowed the federal government to do things without paying for them.  One of the long-running debates over Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law is that, while it does provide federal money for local schools, the costs of compliance can often exceed the money granted.  This is known as an "unfunded mandate" - that is, a law requiring you to do something you may not want to do, and making you pay for doing it.

As taxpayers, we are used to this; but for one level of government to be able to demand this of another unbalances the whole system and leads inevitably to higher taxes.  The feds don't have to worry about the cost of their laws, since they make the states foot the bill; the states don't have to worry about justifying the necessary tax increases to their voters, since they can simply point to the federal law and say "We have no choice!"

In some cases, they don't even have to explain that much to the voters; a federal judge will require tax increases to ensure compliance.  This could never take place under the original Constitutional terms of the Great Compromise - any senator that voted for such a thing would be run out of the Senate tarred and feathered by the state legislature that put him there.

No longer do we seem to be a country of united states, but rather a country of individuals living in different states with less sovereignty each time a new bill is passed.  This is the legacy of the 17th Amendment.

Fennoman is a guest writer for Scragged.com.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Fennoman or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments
How is it less in the interest of the people to not elect their Senators directly? I grant you that this lead to Senators-for-life like the examples you gave. But could that not happen wtih Senators picked by other legislators in the state? I would imagine that you'd have more of that, not less because you'd have legislators cutting deals to move themselves around forever.
February 15, 2008 2:19 PM
Government politicians picking other government politicians? I don't know. I think term limits should handle the problem well enough. Just say no one can be in office two consecutive terms. That would mean Teddy K. would have to get a real job every other term.
February 15, 2008 2:47 PM
Well, the Founders debated the idea of writing in term limits, and decided against it. The thought was that we shouldn't put a limit on keeping good people in office, and the voters are **supposed** to get rid of the lousy ones.

Concerning direct election of Senators, the term limits issue is only a very very very minor aspect of the article's point. The major issue is who the Senators answer to. If they answered to the State legislatures, then a powerful body of the Federal government would be inherently opposed to its growth at the expense of the states - which we desperately need.
February 15, 2008 2:56 PM

Thank you for the comment. You clearly understand that the Senate was about the STATES, not the citizens of the states. It's a most important distinction that is lost today. Most people don't understand the concept of federalism.
February 15, 2008 3:01 PM
There's nothing especially wonderful about state government over the federal government. The only difference is that one is smaller than the other. But in that light, counties and townships are smaller and in many cases more important for local decision making than the state government. California, for example, has as much or more red tape for its voters as the feds do at the national level. I understand federalism perfectly. I'm just not sure that state appointments help that anymore than local voters with so many other problems that are going on.
February 15, 2008 3:21 PM
It will make a heck of a difference. Much of what is required by state and local governments are unfunded mandates. By having the state's voice heard in the federal government, many of these types of mandates can be quashed. Re-read the post. The principle of federalism, as demonstrated by state's legislature selected senators, provides an additional check against the power of the federal government. We have no such check anymore.
February 15, 2008 7:28 PM
I would be curious to hear your take on adding other amendments such as the Life Amendment with defines when life begins such that abortion would be wrong. It sounds to me, and I could definitely be wrong, that you are not really in favor of amending the Constitution at all for any reason. Is that true? Just curious...
February 15, 2008 11:02 PM
Eliminating slavery was good. Women's vote was good. Presidential term limits good.

When the change expands liberty and freedom, then it's good. When it limits freedom OR fundamentally changes the system (like the 17th Amendment), then it's bad. Sometimes, like with slavery, it needs to be both. But those are very few and far between.
February 16, 2008 9:43 AM
My proposal- US senators should be elected/appointed by the legislatures and governors. It goes like this: A state legislature will compose a list of six candidates for the US senate seat. The majority party will choose three candidates from the minority party and vice versa. Hopefully by choosing someone from the opposing party based on integrity, accomplishment, and respect, partisanship will become secondary, and true representation of the interest of the state will come into focus. The list of 6 will then be submitted to the Governor upon which time he will choose one candidate to appoint to the US Senate.
September 26, 2009 9:02 AM

Recently, someone commented about this article on a link to it at a different site. They said:

"Have problems on two scores. First, I don't see why state legislators would look out for the interests of their state any better than the citizens of the state. Not obvious to me why this would be the case, and I see no evidence in the links to support the assertion. Second, the article is wrong about the impact of the 17th Amendment on the tenure of Senators. A CRS report on the issue of senate tenure shows an increase from two to five years from the beginning of the republic through 1900 - before the amendment was passed. And from about five to ten years since then (I think the number is about 12 years these days.) No noticeable acceleration of this trend associated with the 17th Amendment. Frankly I don't find the argument persuasive at all - strenuous assertions of "scragged" notwithstanding."

Let me respond:

First, prior to 1913 no senator thought like post 1913 senator. They were there to represent their state. That's how the Constitution was written. That's the charge given to them by the legislature that appointed them. It wouldn't occur to them to represent the people of the state - that's what the House of Representatives is for. Their job was to represent the interests of their state's legislature. Any legislation that come before them was viewed by them through that lens. Post 1913 changed how they viewed it... and changed what kinds of legislation proposed. It was only then that redistributionist legislation could get traction (however, I will argue that crony capitalist legislation was passed prior to 1913, which has always been a problem).

Second, he says "no noticeable trend", then shows a graph (http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/64/senatortenure.jpg/) that shows a noticeable trend upwards. Yet, there is a trend towards longer terms. The change started around 1900, but without the data, it's hard to know. Nevertheless, it is clear that post 1913 terms are longer than pre-1913 terms. Longer terms are not beneficial to any of us. I've yet to hear persuasive argument for anyone serving more than two terms.

November 9, 2012 8:01 PM
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