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Tilting at Windmills

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June 1, 2010

LEAVE THE 17TH AMENDMENT ALONE.... Over the last year or so, the evidence that the Tea Partiers' agenda can be pretty far out there has been overwhelming. What you may not have heard, however, is that this same far-right crowd is especially incensed about the existence of the 17th Amendment -- the constitutional provision that empowers the electorate to choose their own senators, rather than state legislatures doing it, as the Constitution originally mandated.

David Firestone notes today that Tea Party activists and their allies are quite serious about wanting to repeal the 17th Amendment, thinking that it would weaken the federal government and the power of special interests.

Around the country, Tea Party affiliates and some candidates have been pressing for repeal -- though there also has been a lot of hasty backtracking by politicians once the voters realized the implications. In Idaho, two candidates in last month's Republican primary for the First District House seat said they favored repeal, including the winner, Raul Labrador. Steve Stivers, the Republican candidate in an Ohio Congressional race, said he wanted to repeal the amendment, until his Democratic opponent, Representative Mary Jo Kilroy, made an issue of it, after which he seemed to back off.

Utah, the only state that refused to ratify the amendment, remains a particular hotbed of prelapsarian sentiment. Tim Bridgewater, who ousted Senator Robert Bennett of Utah as the Republican candidate in that race, blasts the 17th Amendment on his Web site: "We traded senators who represent rights of states for senators who represent the rights of special interest groups."

As nutty as this sounds, the "Repeal The 17th" initiative really is important to Tea Parties. Marc Ambinder recently noted that the position has "become a part of the Tea Party orthodoxy."

But as with much of the "movement's" agenda, Republican candidates are struggling with the bizarre demands. The GOP is desperate for right-wing support, and therefore willing to consider endorsing a repeal of the constitutional amendment, but notice how often candidates backtrack, fearing that voters would think the idea is a little too ridiculous to be taken seriously.

It reinforces one of the year's most obvious conundrums for the Republican Party -- endorse extreme ideas and earn Tea Party support, or appeal to the American mainstream. For Dems, it also offers an opportunity to remind voters just how nutty the GOP activist base has become: "They're so far gone, the Republican base wants to take away your right to elect your own senators."

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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i particularly appreciate the internal consistency of the TP-ers positions.

(1) politicians bad - can't be trusted, throw 'em all out; citizens good - government needs to be more responsive, the majority of 'real Americans' should rule, not the elites.

(2) instead of direct popular election of US Senators by citizens, we should repeat the 17th and let small groups of elite politicians select the Senators.


Posted by: zeitgeist on June 1, 2010 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

I fail to understand what they think that this would possibly accomplish. Assuming that they are under the impression that the Federal government is too big due to special interests, although far be it from me to get the jist of any Tea Party concept, repealing the 17th amendment would just shift the problem elsewhere, times 50.

Let's say that States how select Senators. The special interests would now be at the State level, as that is who would control the actual process and therefore have all power. The special interests would just becomes larger as they now have to use their influence, lobbying efforts and donations in State races and at the State level. It is literally like identifying something that you see as problematic and then coming up with a solution that is 50 times the size of the original problem. Remove a wart but getting 50 warts. Brilliant

Posted by: ashton on June 1, 2010 at 10:25 AM | PERMALINK

Zeitgeist beat me to it, but that's what jumps out at me, too: put the fate of the Senate in hands of the state legislature, which, if Florida is any guide, is up for sale on E-bay.

This goes along with the same mindset that Big Guv'ment is bad until they need to be bailed out from stuff like oil spills.

They're like teenagers who rebel against the parents by going completely adolescent-rebel mode but still want three squares, a bed, and their weekly allowance.

Posted by: Mustang Bobby on June 1, 2010 at 10:27 AM | PERMALINK

Yeah, I heard about this one.
Soon, they'll want only landowning white males to be allowed to vote.
I wonder what the new breakdowns will be, for representative purposes? Blacks will count at 3/5ths, to soothe the Constitutionalist's. White women, what, 4/5ths? And Hipanic's, because they are the fastest growing demographic, what, 2/5ths to slow them down?
Please, please, continue on this path. It's the only thing helping the Democrats. Lord knows, we can't help ourselves...

Posted by: c u n d gulag on June 1, 2010 at 10:32 AM | PERMALINK

Repealing the 17th Ammendment has little to do with lessening the impact of "special interests". First of all, understand the line of tea bag thinking - the term "special interests" doesn't apply to corporate interests, only those lobbying for unions, or the less privileged. Secondly, it is the tea baggers view that state legislatures are generally more conservative than their constituency at large, so tea baggers hope this will insure a GOP majority for years to come.

Every dem candidate engaged with a tea bag supported candidate should ask up front, "Do you support repealing trhe 17th ammendment?" Put them on the record; either they appear like complete loons to the general public, or they earn the hostility of their base.

Posted by: Stetson Kennedy on June 1, 2010 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

Somehow the Teabaggers got wind of the GOP's mantra during the health care debate: "Scrap it, and go back to square one, start over."

Excellent Idea! Let's do the same with the whole effin' Constitution, and start over. Since I'm an old, white, land owning male, I get to vote. The rest of you, not so sure. . .

Posted by: DAY on June 1, 2010 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

State legislatures are dominated by Democrats. If they voted along party lines, they would produce a Senate with 67 Dems, easily enough to break the Filibuster Party. Do Tea Partiers realize their effort would advance the Obama agenda? No, somehow I don't think they do - no surprise there, of course.

Dems should humor them by pointing this out and wishing them luck in their pursuit.

Posted by: Baldrick on June 1, 2010 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

It's pretty hard to ask someone to vote to send you to the Senate if your platform is that they should not be allowed to vote to send you to the Senate.

Posted by: Jim Naureckas on June 1, 2010 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

LOL -- it's worth noting that popular election of Senators was FDR's original political cause, in his very first campaign for the NY State legislature, running against Tammany.

Posted by: theAmericanist on June 1, 2010 at 10:39 AM | PERMALINK

"They're so far gone, the Republican base wants to take away your right to elect your own senators."
Yeah well that , and your freedom to make mistakes in the bedroom or doctors office . To mention two little hotspots of inspiration to our dear friends at the theocratic times to come .
The trouble with logic is that is not in the least bit welcome in the Tea Baggeurs come Tea Party coffee klatches . So take your filthy fifty times 'whatever' and put it in your pipe and smoke it . Tea doesn't ask for water , it just is for heavens sakes .

Posted by: FRP on June 1, 2010 at 10:40 AM | PERMALINK

It all makes perfect sense if you consider the nature of the authoritarian personality. The tea party crowd doesn't want freedom from big government, only freedom from a government controlled by a party they dislike, and led (shudder) by a non-white person. Give them back the Bush White House, or a reasonable facsimile like the Palin White House, and they'd be begging Daddy to take away all their scary freedoms and Keep Us Safe (registered trade mark).

Posted by: T-Rex on June 1, 2010 at 10:48 AM | PERMALINK

These folks should really just stick to tooth and gumming Dick Armey's nutsack..

Posted by: Trollop on June 1, 2010 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

Non-Teabagger Bruce Bartlett suggested a few weeks ago that the 17th Amendment be scrapped -- and that the U.S. House be enlarged to some 1100 members.


Posted by: Grumpy on June 1, 2010 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

the sad thing is that those who argue for the 17th Amendment to be repealed have forgotten WHY that amendment was passed in the first place: Because the state legislatures themselves were corrupt, beholden to special interests and political machines. Bribery cases were rampant. And worse, those corrupt forces sometimes made it impossible to seat anyone for years at a time as state legislatures deadlocked: there were years (1901 to 1903) that BOTH Delaware seats were vacant.

The problem is that the Teabaggers think repealing the 17th Amendment will bring back more power to the states. It won't. It will exacerbate the corruption at the state level: Hi, Texas! Hi, Florida (with 5 ongoing criminal investigations THIS YEAR ALONE)! Hi, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Louisiana, Tennessee, California and pretty much every other state.

The Teabagger obsession with weakening the federal government is demonstrably ignorant, ill-informed and reckless. But what do you expect from idiots who insist they can make their own reality and rewrite our history?

Posted by: PaulW on June 1, 2010 at 10:51 AM | PERMALINK

Does anyone running for Senator actually endorse this idea?

'Vote for me and I'll see to it you never get to do that again'?

Posted by: cld on June 1, 2010 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK

Weird. We should *elect* our state legislators... but then *not elect* our US senators and let the elected state legislators appoint them? What a waste of time by these loonies.

Posted by: Hmmmmm on June 1, 2010 at 11:02 AM | PERMALINK

I really don't get this. Where does this idea come from? is it some misguided "purity" thing about the original unamended Constitution?

PaulW's comment is spot on - there's a reason the 17th amendment was introduced. I'm reminded why California introduced the ballot measure process - which is abused nowadays - it was because they wanted to allow the people the ability to legislate directly, since the state legislature was owned, bought and sold by special interests, particularly the railroads.

And California is a great example, too - we can't even pass our own budget. What kind of gridlock can we expect to select senators?

Posted by: g on June 1, 2010 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

I think what underlies it is belief that God gave USA its Constitution and the first 10 amendments (at least the second one); Since God's word infallible, obviously any change since then is a corruption of the original intent.

Posted by: Johnny Canuck on June 1, 2010 at 11:12 AM | PERMALINK

PaulW is exactly right--the 17th Amendment was passed in order to remove the election of Senators from the hands of corrupt State legislatures.

The Tea Partiers and others who support this move are simply ignorant of the history; the notion that state legislatures are immune to special interests is laughable. Actually, since so few people are aware of who their local legislators are and local legislators are often paid very little, it will cost much less to influence the election of Senators in the event of a repeal of the 17th amendment--the price for purchasing their vote is much lower.

This is just a monumentally stupid idea.

Posted by: DRF on June 1, 2010 at 11:14 AM | PERMALINK

This is primarily about reinforcing the declining power of old white men.

Posted by: GP on June 1, 2010 at 11:22 AM | PERMALINK

And of course state legislatures are only populated by paragons of virtue who never ever vote in accordance with any requests from "special interests." It's only those rotten lib'ruls in the fed'rul guv'mint what do that.

These morons haven't learned a damn thing since the Civil War.

Posted by: TCinLA on June 1, 2010 at 11:25 AM | PERMALINK

A small caveat -- the original method of electing Senators was a states' rights position, because Senators didn't represent people as such, but states.

Folks shouldn't skip over the counter to the 'state legislators are corrupt so we needed direct election' argument, either. US Senators have to beg money from donors so constantly it'd be hard to contrast them with organized crime and conclude they're the NOT corrupt option.

The net effect over time of the popular election of Senators was to make election to the Senate more like election to the House, only bigger: 80 votes in the California House, 40 in their Senate, compared to the 5 million votes DiFi got in 2006. And her race was cheap -- just $8 million.

Consider that Linda McMahon says she is willing to spend $50 million of her own money, which would work out to about $50 per voter, and ask why the Senate is full of millionaires, including more than a few who spent their own money to get there. Then ask where all the others got the money.

I'm just sayin'.

Posted by: theAmericanist on June 1, 2010 at 11:25 AM | PERMALINK

Too bad we don't have a partisan president who can effectively obtain political advantage from this and other bonkers Republican

Posted by: gdb on June 1, 2010 at 12:00 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, yeah. People are just gonna love having their voting rights ripped away from them and handed to politicians. Brilliant.

Posted by: DKF on June 1, 2010 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

Why do I expect enthusiasm for this to wane if they ever took control of the federal government again?

Term limits was a big deal in 1992 and 1994 but seemed to drop off the map after the GOP won the House.

Posted by: catclub on June 1, 2010 at 12:08 PM | PERMALINK

The more bizarre the better.
There is no republican party anymore. The party of Lincoln, Teddy, Ike and Robert Taft has ceased to exist.

Posted by: hornblower on June 1, 2010 at 12:10 PM | PERMALINK

The Tea Party continues to control the conversation.

Posted by: MLJohnston on June 1, 2010 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

If repealing the 17th amendment is considered important to Tea Partiers, then I have another reason to not take them seriously. Redonkulus.

Of course this could just be a code/test so that they know when they are talking to a "real" tea partier and not some wann be who wants to curry favor to get votes. A real tea partier is in on the "joke."

Posted by: ET on June 1, 2010 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

If one thinks Dems would find this easy to counter...one doesn't know Dems. I mean, how hard was it to make an argument for the public option, after all? How hard was it to argue against the freaking war in Iraq? How hard was it to call the Swift Boat Liars a sack of liars? The GOP could propose that the Supreme Court pick the President and the Dems wouldn't bat an eye. Oh...wait...

Posted by: Rick Bohan on June 1, 2010 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

I'll do 'em one better. Let's just get rid of the senate.

Posted by: doubtful on June 1, 2010 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

I think the main inspiration of the 17th Amendment was not so much anti-corruption but instead an understanding that urban populations were being underrepresented.

Before the One Man, One Vote rulings of the 1960s it was common to have at least one House of the Legislature of the state to allocate an even number of seats per county. In California this meant that SF had two State Senators as did Los Angeles County but equally so did every County in the Sierra Nevada. And there are by rough count a gazillion of them. California became a State in 1850 at a time when the Gold Rush was still on, meaning that every one of those mountain counties had both a comparatively large population and a big economic output, it made sense they should have equal representation. Thirty years later not so much, some of these Counties were down to tiny populations even as LA had gone from stage stop to city. By the end the railroads were likely to be the biggest landowner in those mountain counties and the biggest employer, it was only natural that the State Senators looked out for the interest of the railroads and that the latter found it easy to buy enough votes to get their men in.

Was this 'corruption'? Well not by the standards of the times, just about every City in the country was run by a political machine or machines whose methods were not much different than the California Railroad Robber Barons, it is just that a combination of history and geography gave Stanford, Hopkins et al a lock on the State Senate and so essentially free choice of U.S. Senators.

So in California the 17th amendment did not necessarily result in less corruption overall, but instead a power shift from mountain to coast, from farm to city, and from North to South. There is no doubt that the end result was more small 'd' democratic, but in practice that meant that political power transferred from owners of railroads to owners of newspapers, the Chandlers and the Hearsts gaining lots of political leverage along with the political machine bosses.

Meaning that elected Senators might be more or less corrupt than selected Senators but they were almost certain to represent the interests of the more populous areas of any given State.

Whether State Legislatures are as a rule more conservative than the population as a whole is an open question. But unless the TPers eliminate One Man, One Vote along with the 17th amendment, they will not get the huge overrepresentation of rural areas typical of Legislatures a hundred years ago, as long as State Senate Districts represent equal populations you can only skew the conservative/liberal basis so much.

Posted by: Bruce Webb on June 1, 2010 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK

Tom Schaller did a great post (with a lovely graph) titled "Department of Colossally Stupid Ideas: Repeal 17th Amendment" at 538 last week. Since the 08 elections, Ds control both chambers in 27 states while Rs control both in just 8 states so, at least at this point in time, I don't think the TPers would be thrilled with the end result of state legislatures appointing senators.

Posted by: steph on June 1, 2010 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK

Bruce Webb gets half way there: the basic argument for direct election of Senators is that it should be the people of the state, not its state legislature, who choose their Senators.

It's a great principle, but applied in the wrong place. In 1916, the great crime to the proposition that "We, the People" should rule wasn't that state legislators chose Senators.

It was that representation in Congress, and power among the Representatives, was determined in an utterly perverse way.

Whether or not a particular state's legislature actually did a good job representing the distribution of the polity within the state isn't particularly relevant. Some states would do a fairly good job, others not. (I note that Ted Sorenson's father was instrumental in creating the unicameral legislature in Nebraska, just to give some texture to the argument.) Most states had legislatures that were no better than they ought to be, of course.

What really caused the benchmark Progressive victory to directly elect Senators wasn't just that there was open bribery (like Lorimer in Illinois), but that people like William Jennings Bryan had fought on 'the people vs the powerful' lines for a generation, and they finally won a unique victory against the Founder's intent to have a structure that was tilted in the opposite direction.

But even a hundred years ago, it was the wrong victory.

If you really want to see the absence of one-person, one-vote, look at the way the old South had Congressional Districts (like the Tenth in Alabama) with as few as 2,000 votes in 'em, which oddly enough wound up electing a Speaker (Bankhead, Tallulah's father). Virtually the entire House leadership throughout the 20th century came from the solid South -- all products of Jim Crow, and not affected in the slightest by the 17th amendment.

So what Progressives SHOULD have done wasn't to require the direct election of Senators (which didn't fix anything), nor to pat themselves on the back over one person, one vote, but to have enforced the 14th amendment's reduction clause:

"But when the right to vote at any election... is denied... except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in ... proportion... "

Jim Crow and seniority in the House was simply the 3/5s clause in a new form. THAT's what progressives should have fixed, back in the day.

Posted by: theAmericanist on June 1, 2010 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

Go Tea Party!!!! This is a wonderful idea and the slogan, "Repeal the 17th," is genius. You have my endorsement to insist it be part of the Republican Party platform... AND, please make sure John McCain endorses the idea so he can be reelected... remember he cannot do it without you.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on June 1, 2010 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

One of the checks and balances built into our federal government was the appointment of state Senators. The position of Senator was to be that of an Ambassador from the state which was still considered a semi independent nation. Their role was to oversee the bills being proposed by the House of Representatives and insure that the contract ( Constitution) between the state and federal government was not being violated, and to prevent the House and President from obligating the state to programs that the state budget could not afford. At all times the Senator was representing the state that appointed him he was not obligated to the people, special interest groups or political action committees, but to the state government that gave him his job.

Posted by: JDR188 on August 23, 2010 at 10:15 PM | PERMALINK



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