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Should the 17th Amendment be Repealed?
June 8, 2010
by William P. Meyers

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The other day I learned, through commercial media, that some Tea Party activists have included the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment (17th or XVII) to the U.S. Constitution on their agenda. The 17th Amendment changes the way that U.S. Senators are elected. Before its ratification the Senators were selected by their state legislatures, as per Article I, Section 3. Since its adoption Senators, two per state, have been directly elected by the voting citizens of their states. [See also brief history of 17th Amendment]

I mentioned in America: Republic or Democracy? that "The main Amendment that tipped the scales from the national government of the United States being a mere republic to being a true representative democracy was the often-overlooked Seventeenth Amendment, which took effect in 1913. Since 1913 the U.S. Senate has been elected directly by the voters, rather than being appointed by the state legislatures. That makes the national government democratic in form, as well as being a republic."

Just last year the idea of repealing the 17th Amendment, to help return America, formally, to a minority-ruled republic, was considered quaint fringe material. But recently repealing the 17th made news because a few Republican Party candidates for major offices included this idea in their speeches. Response from the public was negative, so they have backed off the idea, for now. [See, for instance, Repeal the 17th Amendment by Gene Healy or Should We Repeal the 17th Amendment by John A. Tures.]

While I follow mainstream wisdom here, that electing U.S. Senators is better than having them selected by state legislatures, the Tea Party people have at least one interesting point mixed in with other arguments. The Federal Government was intended to be federal, that is, only a limited degree of sovereignty was given up by the states to the national aspect of the system. The idea that the states had any real sovereignty was decided not by a vote or by the Supreme Court's interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, but by the Civil War. Post civil war, states had little or no real power. The nation has been ruled from Washington D.C. ever since. Which most Americans believe is a good thing, most of the time. I have my doubts.

Suppose we allow that the more centralized a government is, the more autocratic it becomes. Then we (those of us who prefer democracy) would want to keep decision making not only democratic in form, but decentralized. We would want local governments - counties, cities, and states - to have more authority.

You might even want the Federal government limited to doing its task list in Article I, Section 8, and tasks scattered about in a few other places in the Constitution. The states, the counties, or the people themselves would take care of everything else.

You also might want the national aspect of the Federal government to be kept under control by the states (too late for that!).

In which case, you might want to repeal the 17th Amendment. If it would allow the federal Senate to be controlled by the people of individual states.

Only it would not do that. The strengthening of federal authority over the states and people took place over a long period of time, with a variety of driving forces. The single most important factor: the Constitution itself. If you want to get the states back in the saddle, you would want to go back to the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution was created by a powerful minority of rich white Americans specifically for the purpose of taking power away from the ordinary residents of the states and centralizing it in the Congress, President, Supreme Court, and military. The writers of the Constitution did not get everything they wanted. They just got as much as they could at the time.

Here is a project for the Tea Party, Mad Hatter and all: let take our Way Back machine way back. Forget amending the Constitution, let's write something along the lines of the Articles of Confederation to be our governing document.

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