POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica
The Wisdom of the Founders
by David Trumbull -- February 1, 2013

One hundred years ago the Congress of the United States approved and, state-by-state, the voters ratified the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, providing for direct election of senators. Before that the legislature of each State selected the two senators to represent that State in Washington. It was a radical change, one that drastically altered, for the worse, the relationship of the States and the National government.

James Madison wrote in Federalist 39 "The House of Representatives will derive its powers from the people of America... So far the government is national, not federal. The Senate, on the other hand, will derive its powers from the States, as political and coequal societies... So far the government is federal, not national.

The Seventeenth Amendment undid that balance of National and Federal. The result has been one hundred years of expansion of the power of 546 men and women in Washington (435 Representatives, 100 Senators, the President and Vice President, and Nine Supreme Court Justices) to dictate nearly every aspect of your life.

Direct election of senators was promoted as a scheme to give the people more say in their government. The result has been exactly the opposite. Rather than senators appointed by our local legislators who live among us and know our needs and desires, we have a Senate dominated by billionaires and celebrities far removed from the lives of ordinary Americans. And why not? With so much at stake in a senate election, outside special interests, not ordinary citizens, provide the massive funding necessary to run a statewide campaign.

George Will, writing in 2009, said: "Severing senators from state legislatures, which could monitor and even instruct them, made them more susceptible to influence by nationally organized interest groups based in Washington. Many of those groups, who preferred one-stop shopping in Washington to currying favors in all the state capitals, campaigned for the 17th Amendment."

The astute observer of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, considered indirect election senators to be one of America’s greatest contributions to democracy and the popular franchise, writing in Book I, Part 2, Chapter 5 of Democracy in America: “…this transmission of the popular authority through an assembly of chosen men operates an important change in it, by refining its discretion and improving the forms which it adopts. Men who are chosen in this manner accurately represent the majority of the nation which governs them; but they represent the elevated thoughts which are current in the community, the propensities which prompt its nobler actions, rather than the petty passions which disturb or the vices which disgrace it.”

Tocqueville was so persuaded that indirect election of senators could save the American democracy from degenerating into despotism, as had historic democracies, that he confidently predicted that Americans would surely expand the principle to other offices. Sadly he was wrong.