Kessel: Un-Democracy Now!

Zach Kessel, Op-Ed Contributor

Hidden among the later amendments to the United States Constitution, tucked between the authorization of a federal income tax and the prohibition of alcohol manufacture and sale, lies one of the worst decisions in American history — the 17th Amendment.

The 17th Amendment, ratified on April 8, 1913, established the direct election of U.S. senators by a popular vote. The ensuing decades saw the expansion of the federal government far past the intentions of this nation’s founders and drastically increased partisanship in the Senate, but those are not the only issues with the amendment. The American populace is by no means equipped to choose who sits in the Senate.

Before the 17th Amendment, state legislators elected senators. The senator acted as a conduit between the state and the federal government, essentially protecting federalism as envisioned by America’s founders. The Senate was meant to be a voice for individual state governments in Washington, so the federal government would not have the option of forgoing state consent in lawmaking.

A bicameral deliberative body aimed to provide order to the legislative process — the House of Representatives was the “voice of the people,” and the Senate would represent the interests of the states. In a conversation between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson after the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Jefferson asked Washington why the convention had created a Senate. Pouring his tea, Washington responded, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” In Washington’s analogy, the House is where legislation begins, and the Senate is a more deliberative body that weighs the consequences of bills passed in the House. That is how the American political system is supposed to work, but the 17th Amendment prevents the Senate from fulfilling its rightful role.

Since the amendment’s ratification, U.S. senators must worry about reelection. If you’re looking for a reason why Republican senators have no problem with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stalling the legislative process with his refusal to bring bills passed in the House to the Senate floor, look no further than the 17th Amendment. McConnell can stop bipartisan legislation because he doesn’t have to worry about responsible state legislators replacing him. Senators now have to worry about appeasing an ever-polarized and vengeful base that wants to vote out any single member of the Senate who dares reach across the aisle or oppose party leadership. When former GOP senators Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) publicly opposed President Donald Trump, the Republican base called for their heads on pikes, and they were both forced to retire. No senator who wants to keep their job would ever butt heads with the base.

In addition to increased partisanship, money now plays an enormous role in Senate elections. According to George Mason University law professor Todd Zywicki, “changing the method by which the Senate was elected undermined the check that bicameralism provided against special interest legislation.” The 17th Amendment destroys the barrier between the law and moneyed special interest groups, allowing the Senate to make decisions not based on the will of the states but based on the pursuit of campaign donations.

Call me elitist, but I believe that the people responsible for deciding who sits in the Senate should be the people who know what they’re doing. The University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted a poll in 2017 in which 37 percent of respondents could not name a single right protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Only 26 percent of respondents could name all three branches of the federal government. Thirty-three percent of respondents could not name a single branch of the federal government. The American people–the majority of who know absolutely nothing about government or policy–should not be deciding who sits in the Senate.

Countless Washington staffers have anecdotes reinforcing my argument. On a recent episode of the Bulwark Podcast, Bulwark senior editor Jim Swift recounted an experience he had while working in former Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) office. A constituent called the office, peeved over a vote the Senator had cast. That constituent said to Swift that they would no longer support Kyl for reelection later that year. The issue was that Kyl was not up for reelection in five-and-a-half years. A U.S. senator’s term, of course, is six years. That constituent didn’t know that, and I’m sure most Americans don’t either, considering one third of them can’t name a single branch of government. Angry, partisan voters with no clue what they’re talking about should not be in charge of who sits in the Senate.

I’m sure a lot of people like being able to choose their senator. I do, too. We all like the feeling of power it gives us. The fact of the matter, though, is that it is entirely inappropriate for an electorate that doesn’t have the slightest idea of what it’s doing to choose the people meant to protect the states from an overzealous Washington. The people should serve the goal of federalism, to prevent a tyrant like King George III from once again ruling over the American people with an iron fist. The 17th Amendment should never have been ratified, and it’s time to correct one of the American body politic’s greatest mistakes.

Zach Kessel is a Communication freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.