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Why Some Lawmakers Want to Abolish the 17th Amendment

Adopted in 1913, it took the job of electing U.S. senators away from state legislatures.

It’s possible that by granting themselves more power, state legislators could make issues that concern them less relevant.

Around the country, there’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about abolishing the 17th Amendment. Adopted in 1913, it took the job of electing U.S. senators away from state legislatures. Some legislators, particularly on the right, have come to view that as a mistake, arguing that it has upset the nation’s political balance of power and allowed Congress to trounce on state sovereignty. “It decouples our U.S. senators from their home state,” says Indiana state Sen. Jim Smith. “There have been many, many examples of the U.S. Senate not acting in the best interest of the states.”

Smith has introduced a bill that would nullify Indiana’s vote to ratify the 17th Amendment. Other bills in other states have called either for the amendment’s outright repeal or some mechanism allowing legislators to nominate party nominees for Senate. Such legislation hasn’t gathered much momentum, but simply raising the idea brings renewed attention and respect from U.S. senators, says Tennessee state Sen. Frank Niceley. 

But Electing the Senate, a new book that examines how U.S. Senate elections played out in the decades prior to the amendment’s adoption, suggests that letting legislatures make the call wasn’t always pretty. Besides the fact that legislative majorities nearly always chose senators from their own party, the process often required multiple ballots and frequently resulted in deadlocks that could leave states without Senate representation for as long as two years.

With Senate elections as “the focal point of partisan power struggles,” write political scientists Wendy J. Schiller and Charles Stewart III, bribery of legislators was rife. Adjusted for inflation, more money was spent bribing legislators to decide one Senate contest in Montana in 1899 than the total amount spent on the Senate race there in 2012. “The extent of corruption under this system cannot be overstated,” they write.

But Smith says that there’s a lot more transparency today surrounding campaign finance and politics, and that returning Senate selection to legislatures would have beneficial effects outweighing fears of corruption.

He doesn’t deny that races for state legislative seats would largely become referenda on U.S. Senate picks, though. The kind of money that floods into states during redistricting cycles would become a constant. Steven Rogers, a Saint Louis University political scientist who has studied the issue, says this wouldn’t actually matter so much, since votes at all levels of government follow more predictable partisan patterns already. But state issues would likely come to take a back seat to national concerns.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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