11.22.2013 2

The 17th Amendment: 100 years later

U.S. SenateBy Tom Toth

Since its original design, the United States Senate has undergone two integrally related transformations in design and purpose.

In 1913, states voted away their federal legislative voice by ratifying the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, changing the appointment of Senators to a direct election.

Under the original bicameral design of the United States legislature, the Senate was the voice of the individual, co-equal states of the union and its members were appointed by state legislatures to represent the interests of the state. The House of Representatives was conversely designed to be the complimentary voice of the people, where members from relatively small districts face election by their neighbors every 24 months.

The existence of the Senate as a second chamber of Congress was the great Constitutional compromise for small states who would have been rendered powerless to the political wills of the larger states in the union. The 17th Amendment ended this compromise.

Direct elections shift the political motivation of the individual Senator from representing the interests of his or her state to representing the same electorate as the House of Representatives, using the same device of election, changing the purpose and makeup of the Senate as a legislative body.

As with any change in the law, Constitutional amendments have consequences. If the 17th Amendment were removed and Senators were representing the states, members of the Senate would be intimately familiar in the civil affairs of their states and  there would conceivably be no unfunded mandates allowed to be imposed upon states from the federal government. Further, local elections would have tangible ramifications over the national political landscape resulting in greater individual civic engagement.

Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as a Minister in France during the Constitutional Convention, inquired of George Washington why the delegates to the convention had created the Senate. Washington responded famously, “Why did you pour that tea into your saucer?” “To cool it,” said Jefferson. “Even so,” responded Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

In 2013, the Senate abandoned its role as the “legislative cooling saucer” when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and the compliant members of his party unilaterally suspended minority power in the Senate by destroying filibuster rule for virtually all federal except supreme court nominees. The filibuster is the sole means by which the minority party in the Senate can practice legislative oversight as a governing check and balance by continuing debate until a 60-vote cloture agreement can be made. Once removed, not only do states have no representation, but neither do the nation’s minority voices.

There was a common notion among the nation’s framers that the deliberative process (often called “gridlock” today) is beneficial for the long-term health of the republic as a preventative protection against radical change. Conversely, “Progressives,” by virtue of even their self-assumed title, resist the very notion of gridlock when they are in power. They practice public policy as if the greater good is only achievable when the “progressives'” notion of forward progress is constantly being made, otherwise their work as statesmen is irrelevant. The filibuster, a staple of Senatorial deliberations, is the tool of practical deliberation that, although frustrating for the majority party, ensures a layer of protection against bad policy. It exists to keep simple mob rule from dominating deliberations in the small, powerful legislative body.

Harry Reid stated on the morning he changed the Senate rules that action was necessary for the chamber to “evolve” in order “to remain relevant.”  Killing the filibuster, no matter how shortsighted politically, is the only expedient option for the left if “progress” is challenged on any significant scale. Republicans stood in the way of progress, and evolution became a necessity.

If kept, this rule change will mark as significant a fundamental transformation in the Senate as the 17th Amendment.

Contextualizing the Senate in the light of its original design, then, what is the purpose of the Senate’s modern existence? The people already have direct legislative representation in the House of Representatives. The states have no federal representation from either chamber. Now, Presidential appointments can be passed by simple majority fiat and any other filibuster rules are one motion from a majority vote away from nonexistence.

Any elementary social studies student can tell you that the Senate is the “legislative cooling saucer” and the voice of the smaller, less powerful states. Now compromised on both fronts, this observer repeats Jefferson’s query: What exactly is the purpose of the Senate?

Tom Toth is the Social Media Director for Americans for Limited Government

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