May 14, 2012 – Essay #61 – Amendment XVII: Direct Election of Senators – Guest Essayist: Dr. John S. Baker, Jr., Distinguished Scholar in Residence, Catholic University School of Law; Professor Emeritus, Louisiana State University Law Center
1: The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.
2: When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.
3: This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.
Many Americans wonder why it is that the federal government continues to expand its power at the expense of the states and local governments. As the Supreme Court observed in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority, 469 U.S. 528 (1985),“the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 … alter[ed] the influence of the States in the federal political process.” Ironically, it was state legislatures that insisted on adopting the Seventeenth Amendment even though it virtually guaranteed their loss of power. The Seventeenth Amendment inflicted a near death-blow to federalism.
The first sentence of the Seventeenth amendment substitutes “elected by the people thereof” for the words “chosen by the Legislature thereof” in the language of the first paragraph of Article 1, Sect. 3. The amendment also provides the procedure for filling vacancies by election, but permitting states by legislation to allow the state’s governor to make temporary appointments.
Prior to the 17th Amendment, the Constitution provided for US senators to be elected by the legislature of each state in order to reflect that the Senate represented the states, as contrasted with the House which represented the people of each state. Originally, U.S. senators did represent their own states because they owed their elections to their state legislature, rather than directly to the voters of the state. The Senate, thus, carried forward the (con)federal element from the Articles of Confederation, under which only the states were represented in the national legislative body. As noted in The Federalist, the fact that state legislatures elected U.S. senators made the states part of the federal government. As intended, this arrangement provided protection for states against attempts by the federal government to increase and consolidate its own power. In other words, the original method of electing senators was the primary institutional protection of federalism.
In the decade prior to the Civil War, over the issue of slavery, and increasingly after the Civil War, some state legislatures failed to elect senators. That development, plus charges that senators were being elected and corrupted by corporate interests prompted some states to adopt a system of de facto election of senators, the results of which were then ratified by the state legislatures. Proposals for a constitutional amendment providing for direct popular election of senators were long blocked in the Senate because most senators were elected by state legislatures. Over time, the number of senators elected de facto by popular election increased. Also, states were adopting petitions for a constitutional convention to consider an amendment to provide for popular election of senators. As the number of states came closer to the number requiring the calling of a Constitutional Convention, the Senate allowed what became the Seventeenth Amendment to be submitted to the states for ratification.
A major factor promoting direct popular election of senators was the Progressive Movement. This movement generally criticized the Constitution’s system of separation of powers because it made it difficult to enact federal legislation. The Framers had done so in order to protect liberty and to create stability in government. The Progressives, on the other hand, wanted government to be more democratic and, therefore, to allow easier passage of national legislation reflecting the immediate popular will.
By shifting the selection of senators to the general electorate, the 17th amendment not only accomplished those purposes; but it also meant that senators no longer needed to be as concerned about the issues favored by state legislators. Predictably, over time, senators voted for popular measures which involved “unfunded mandates” imposing the costs on the states. Senators were able to claim political credit for the legislation, while the states were left to pay for new national policies not adopted by the states. Such unfunded mandates would have been unthinkable prior to adoption of the 17th amendment.
Ironically, more than the required number of state legislatures ratified the Seventeenth Amendment, with little or no realization that they were diminishing the power of their own states and undermining federalism generally. Many legislators apparently thought they had more important matters to attend to than devoting time to the struggles that often revolved around electing a senator. Such an attitude might have been understandable at a time when the federal government had much less power vis-a-vis the states. What those legislators did not appreciate was that the balance of power favorable to the states was due to the fact that state legislatures controlled the U.S. Senate. Over time, since adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment, the balance of power has inevitably consistently shifted in favor of the federal government.
Dr. John S. Baker, Jr. is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Catholic University School of Law and Professor Emeritus of Law at Louisiana State University Law Center.