Civil and Human Rights

The 17th WHAT?? Obscure Amendment Enters into Lt. Gov. Race

by Jim Forsyth


There are a lot of important issues facing America today, and at least two candidates for the Republican nomination to be Lieutenant Governor of Texas, including the incumbent, think one of them is the need to repeal the 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution.


In case you don’t have your pocket constitution close by, the 17th Amendment, which was ratified in 1913, calls for the direct popular election of members of the U.S. Senate.  Before that Amendment, which was one of several measures pushed by progressive politicians like William Jennings Bryan in the early 20th century, U.S. Senators were selected by the legislatures of the states they represented.


“Believe me, the absence, the reversal of the 17th Amendment, would make all of the United States Senators listening daily to the heartbeat of the Legislatures and not be passing laws which cost all of us,” Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst said earlier this month in a debate before a Tea Party group in the Houston suburb of Clear Lake.


State Senator Dan Patrick, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the job Dewhurst now holds, which is frequently called the most powerful political office in the state, immediately stated his support for repeal of the Amendment.


“I unequivocally support the repeal of the 17th Amendment and the restoration of our Founders’ original intent select our United States Senators,” said Patrick, who is a former conservative radio talk show host and former TV sportscaster in Houston.


Mark Jones, a political analyst at Rice University, said this is a bizarre issue for conservatives to be battling over.


“If you somehow would go back to the election of U.S. Senators by state legislatures you would go back to the backroom deals and unseemly uses of money that they are so critical of,” Jones said.


While the 17th Amendment may be an obscure trivia question to most Americans, the issue of repealing it is gaining traction in conservative and Tea Party circles.  Earlier this year, Randall Holcombe, a fellow at the Libertarian-leaning Independent Institute, wrote that the Amendment more than anything else is responsible for the concentration of power in Washington.


“The 17th Amendment has taken power away from the states by removing representatives of the states from the Senate and replacing them with representatives who are popularly elected,” Holcombe wrote.  “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.”


Holcombe cited the move to force states to lower the drinking age to 18, which was accompanied by a Congressional threat to withhold federal highway money from states, as an example of a federal power grab which would never have happened without the 17th Amendment.  Even the Affordable Care Act, which imposes significant costs and burdens on states, would have been crafted much differently, he says, were the Senators appointed by state legislatures.


Despite the claims of the progressives who pushed for the amendment that it would increase the power of the voters, critics say the 17th Amendment has made Congress less accountable to the states, which conservatives say the constitution singles out as the most powerful government forces.


But Jones says advocates of repeal of the 17th Amendment are going against their core beliefs.


“It is somewhat surprising that some Tea Party advocates are supporting this, because this is a group that praises transparency and is very critical of back room deals,” he said.


David Gans, Director of the Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Citizenship Program at the Constitutional Accountability Center, wrote on the Center’s blog earlier this year that ‘election of Senators by state legislatures was a disaster.’


“Far from being good politics or good constitutional design, the system led to rampant and blatant corruption, letting corporations and other moneyed interests effectively buy U.S. Senators, and tied state legislatures up in numerous, lengthy deadlocks over whom to send to Washington,” Gans wrote.


Not all of the candidates for the Republican nomination for Texas Lieutenant Governor agree with repealing the amendment.


“I think that’s a silly idea,” State Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said.  “My opponents are trying to play to a small segment.  It’s a bad idea.  I want to keep electing my U.S. Senators.”

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