In the Spring of 1912 Congress decided it was best to change the manner in which the Congress was constituted. They did it with the passage of the 17th amendment to the Constitution. Less than a year later it was ratified by the states on April 8, 1913. Unlucky 13, I say.
Leading up to that infamous date apparently there was significant corruption going on in the select of senators. Bribery, corruption, etc. dotted the landscape. There were accusations made by muckrakers of industrialist and financiers using senators as pawns. It is interesting that one of the chief muckrakers of the day was himself financed by William R. Hearst, one of the wealthy men around.
Because of their media mischief many states turned from their duty to appoint senator to shifting to the citizens, where the state elected officials would have no accountability for poor senators. Once the people spoke the legislatures just rubber stamped Hearst’s appeal for direct elections. Once these new senators took office it could be counted on for them to support amending the constitution. In essence the amendment was championed by progressives of the day. One in particular was William Borah of Idaho. What is perplexing about him is that even though the muckrakers at his side made accusation of corruption and immorality of legislatively appointed senators, Borah himself was a philanderer.
But this piece is not about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the past characters of the senate.
The 17th was touted as a means of correcting the flaws of senate that offered allegiance their states, rather than the progressive print propagandists. The argument sold by the muckrakers was bought by 37 of the 48 states. Utah can proudly stand as the one state which emphatically said no to this undercut to the Constitution.
What must be answered is why the Continental Congress put this particular provision in the original Constitution. It was , as I have articulated in other blog posts, because they knew that the masses could and would be occasionally swayed by emotion. The Senate was intended to have one-third of its members prevail in office beyond a president and the House.
It was further anticipated by the Continent Congress that state legislatures would choose senators with two characteristics. First, they would be members who recognized and focus upon the sovereignty of the states, rather than simply the rights of people. Secondly, it was sensed that the legislatures would choose persons of extraordinary wisdom and experience to be senators. They would be people who could in fact be trusted to not be swayed by emotion, but understand from a perspective of history when certain acts of the House were unwise.
Now, the early nineteen hundreds was the “Era of progressiveness” and reform. These were the days of the rise of Woodrow Wilson, the single most effective politician to advance the idea of a burgeoning bureaucracy. A legitimate senate, representing the sovereignty of the states, was a serious obstacle to the progressive agenda. It should be no surprise that their strategy was to eliminate state appointed senators, in favor of emotionally driven masses.
A most significant result of popular elections of senators was the steam of campaign control measures of the government. An argument could be made that the ultimate creation of the Federal Election Commission in 1975 was a result of 17th amendment in 1913. The muckrakers of the opening of the twentieth century in fact drove the nation closer to corruption in campaign than existed with senators prior to that time.
Yet, THE most significant disastrous impact of the 17th amendment is the secondary status of the states. Today, the states are not viewed as, nor do they champion for, their sovereignty. Remember the Constitution was developed in part to protect that sovereignty of the states. Remember that one of the powers which the people and the states authorized the federal government to hold was to preserve the sovereignty of the states.
In allocating this power to the federal government the Continental Congress and the colonies established the senate, to represent the states. The 17th destroyed that.
Today virtually every action by the states is challenged by or assumed to be subject to the national government. In short the sovereignty of states has been effectively subdued.