Repeal the 17th Amendment

The 17th Amendment is in its centennial year, having been ratified in 1913.  The Amendment mandates the direct election of senators.  Prior to its passage, Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution specified, “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two senators from each state chosen by the Legislature thereof…”  The 17th Amendment replaces this language, stating, “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two senators from each state, elected by the people thereof…”  In hindsight, the Amendment is a part of the Progressive agenda that has led to the growth of the federal government, and has been a significant factor in the transfer of power to the federal government from the states.  It should be repealed.

For most of the nation’s history, until the passage of the 17th Amendment, senators were chosen by their state legislatures, which meant that the Senate represented the interests of the state governments.  There is a solid rationale for this in a federal system of government.  Legislation must be approved by both the House and the Senate, which meant, prior to the 17th Amendment, that legislation had to be approved by the representatives of the people, in the House, and the representatives of the state governments, in the Senate.  This was a more substantial barrier to the passage of legislation than after the 17th Amendment, when both the House and the Senate represent the same constituencies.

By making it easier for Congress to pass legislation, the 17th Amendment increased the power of the federal government, which has been one factor (albeit, among many) that has led to the substantial growth of the federal government in the century since the Amendment was ratified.

The 17th Amendment has also taken power away from the states by removing representatives of the states from the Senate and replacing them by representatives who are popularly elected.  This has been a significant factor in turning what originally was a federation of state governments into a national system, where the federal government sits firmly on top of the states.

Consider Obamacare, for example, which imposes substantial costs on state governments.  If the Senate still represented the interests of state governments, it probably would not have passed — at least, not in its current form.  Consider legislation that withholds federal funds from states unless they comply with federal guidelines.  The federal government threatened to withhold highway money from states unless they enacted a 55 mph speed limit in 1973.  All states did, and that federal mandate was not repealed until 1995.  Similarly, the federal government threatened to withhold highway money from states that did not raise their drinking age to 21.  That passed in 1984 and remains in effect.  If the Senate represented the state legislatures, it is unlikely that the federal government would be able to pass laws that constrained states, or imposed costs on them, as the federal government now does.

The 17th Amendment has facilitated the growth of the federal government, and has shifted power from the states to the federal government.  We should repeal the 17th Amendment, as a step toward reversing these trends.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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