NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Problem with the 17th

May 12, 2004

On April 28, retiring Sen. Zell Miller, Democrat of Georgia, laid the blame for what ails the U.S. Senate at the door of the 17th amendment to the Constitution. This is the provision that provides for popular election of senators.

Few people today know that the Founding Fathers never intended for senators to be popularly elected. The Constitution originally provided that senators would be chosen by state legislatures. The purpose was to provide the states--as states--an institutional role in the federal government. In effect, senators were to function as ambassadors from the states, which were expected to retain a large degree of sovereignty even after ratification of the Constitution, thereby ensuring that their rights would be protected in a federal system.

The 17th amendment was ratified in 1913. It is no coincidence that the sharp rise in the size and power of the federal government starts in this year (the 16th amendment, establishing a federal income tax, ratified the same year, was also important).

According to George Mason University law professor Todd Zywicki:

  • Prior to the 17th amendment, senators resisted delegating power to Washington in order to keep it at the state and local level.
  • As a result, the long term size of the federal government remained fairly stable during the pre-Seventeenth Amendment era.

Prof. Zywicki also finds little evidence of corruption in the Senate that can be traced to the pre-1913 electoral system. By contrast, there is much evidence that the post-1913 system has been deeply corruptive. As Sen. Miller put it, "Direct elections of Senators...allowed Washington's special interests to call the shots, whether it is filling judicial vacancies, passing laws, or issuing regulations."

Source: Bruce Bartlett, "The Problem With the 17th," National Center for Policy Analysis, May 12, 2004.


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