“It is not by the consolidation, or concentration, of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected.” – Thomas Jefferson
A few days back I made a case for the Electoral College and why we should respect and be grateful for its existence (see: The Electoral College Balance). Essentially, it all boils down to preserving individual and state rights against the natural tendency towards consolidation of power at the national level.
Diffusion of power is good.
Diffusion of power – or separation of power – is one of the most fundamental tenets of our great Constitution. When power is consolidated in the hands of the few the needs of the many are ignored. The founding fathers recognized this great trap and sought to put in place lasting safeguards against the natural tendency of the national government to gain undue political power. It is the very reason we are a Republic as opposed to a Democracy (technically a dictatorship by the majority). We are a Republic with Constitutionally Limited Government.
Which brings us to the 17th Amendment. The 17th Amendment provided for the popular election of Senators by the people of each state. Prior to the amendment, senators were elected by each state’s legislature – not by popular vote. This contrasts with the House of Representatives whose members are elected by popular vote. Under the original framing of the Constitution the people of each state elected the House members and the legislature of each state elected the Senate members. House members serve two years and Senate members serve six years. The shorter term of the House members ensured they would be accountable to the people’s daily or current issues while the longer six year term of the Senators meant they could remain more detached from populism and allowed them to take longer views on issues. This structure also ensured that the House and Senate were each responsible to separate constituencies. The Constitution sought to diffuse power wherever it was able.
The Constitution was structured to push power down governmental levels – towards the people – not away from them. The premise was simple – that states were better equipped to understand and respond to the needs of their citizens than was the national government. State governments are closer to the people than is the national government. Said another way, Congress was created to be an arena for competition between state and national government’s competing interests. The original structure was put in place to protect states against power consolidation by the national government.
Prior to the 17th amendment, Senators were directly linked to a state’s interest. If a senator began to vote against the interest of the state he represented he could be immediately recalled. This system prevented the undue influence of special interests at the Congressional level. This cannot be stated strongly enough. States, not special interests, held the greatest sway and control on a Senator’s votes. This structure was one of the greatest barriers to prevent the increase in power and size of the federal government. It is in direct response to the passage of the 17th amendment that the federal government began its exponential growth. The single greatest barrier to the federal government was taken away by the 17th amendment.
There were legitimate criticisms of senate seats being chosen by state legislatures – the greatest of which surrounded corruption – accusations of senators effectively buying their seats from state legislatures. But there existed inherent checks against such an issue already. The people elected their state legislature – who appointed members of the senate – and the people elected members of the House – who can act as checks on the senate. The people would watch the state legislatures and the state legislatures would watch the senate. This falls into line with the principal of “one voice-one vote” whereby entities are represented only once in government – citizens through the House, states through the Senate.
The cure proved far worse than the problem. The 17th amendment did nothing to cure the easily fixable problem of any existing corruption. Instead it opened the floodgates and torrents of special interest groups (and their cash) poured into Washington. Senators were no longer beholden to states, they were now beholden to the federal government – they became incentivized to help the federal system become stronger because senators were now part of the federal system. The states power, voice and inherent ability to resist the federal government was gone overnight. And, as citizens, so was ours.
The 17th Amendment should be repealed. For the good of citizens. For the good of states. And for the good of our nation.
In questions of powers, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution. — Thomas Jefferson
newer post Temperamentally Sound Choices
older post The Renaissance of the Right