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The 17th Amendment: The Death of State Sovereignty?

Updated on December 26, 2012

I will be the first to admit that I am a conservative talk radio junkie. I listen to them all: Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh. A few days ago, a caller on Sean Hannity’s show expressed his opinion that we could correct much of the corruption in Washington if the 17th Amendment was repealed. Hannity blew him off, with the comment that there are other ways to battle corruption. While that may be true, I think the comment shows a complete lack of understanding of the significance of the 17th Amendment.

For those of you who don’t have the US Constitution memorized, the 17th Amendment provides for the direct election of Senators by the people of the state. Prior to the 17th Amendment, Senators were chosen by the state legislatures. The reason for this was simple. The House of Representatives, with its direct election by the people of each Congressional District every two years, represented the interests of the people. The Senate, whose members were chosen by each State’s legislature every six years, would represent the interests of the state.

These two separate houses of congress, each serving different interests, would balance the power between the interests of the state and the people. If a congressman was not keeping the people of his district happy, he could be voted out within two years. And while Senators held a six year term, the state legislature could recall the senator if he did not represent the interests of his state. The 17th Amendment, with its direct election of senators by popular vote, upset this balance of power. Now, the state’s had no representation. In essence, there were now two Houses of Representatives and one of them (the senate) wan only beholden to the people every six years.

One of the main reasons for the passage of the 17th Amendment was a procedural issue. There were occasional deadlocks within a state’s legislature, and this would result in a state going without representation. (In fact, there was one time when the state of New York went without representation for three months.) Other stated reasons for the Amendment were to end corruption, and direct election of Senators would lead to better representation of the people of the state.

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Well, we all know that the corruption didn’t end, and many Senators only acknowledge the people of their state during campaign season. And now, without state representation, federal power would grow by leaps and bounds. The 10th Amendment states “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” But with Senators no longer representing the interests of the state, the 10th Amendment was largely ignored. In addition, the states no longer had any say in the appointment of Federal Judges. The entire power structure had been changed.

Today, the state governments are mere shadows of their former selves. Power is concentrated in the federal government. Only occasionally have states challenged the federal takeover of state rights, and even rarer are the occasions when the Supreme Court has sided with the states.

The 17th Amendment should be repealed. Returning to Senate appointment by state legislatures would reinstate the linkage between the state and the federal political process. Lobbyists would be less of a problem, as a Senator could be recalled by his home state if he was not serving the State’s interests. The state legislatures would also have the ability to decentralized power, redistributing it to the state level when appropriate. It is time we addressed this issue.


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    • AJReissig profile image

      Alex J. Reissig 5 years ago from New Richmond, Ohio

      Senators were never intended to be close to the people; they were intended to represent the interests of the states, not the people. There is already representation for the people; this is the house of representatives. What we have done is create a "second" house, although this one only needs to answer to the people every six years.

    • profile image

      Jose elias 5 years ago

      If the people directly elects senators, those are closer to the public. Closer to the public interest.

    • Ed Fidecaro profile image

      Ed Fidecaro 6 years ago

      I've thought about this issue often and agree the topic should be revisited. Power, not to mention spending on social programs needs to be returned to the individual states. As it is much of the country is in the unenviable position of having to support the "welfare states" like Ca and NY who receive much more federal funding than they pay into the system forcing other states to make up the difference. Not sure if repeal of 17 would solve the problem but earmarks and corruption need to be dealt with and this may be a good place to start - unfortunately most politicians top priority is getting re-elected rather than representing their states or constituencies - great hub!

    • profile image

      JohnJ 6 years ago

      I agree in principle, but not in the use of terminology. The Senate was not there to represent the interests of state legislatures, but to reinforce Constitutional limits on the federal government. (Another way of saying this could be that the state's interest WAS a limited federal government.) The bicameral legislature was designed to work like this: the democratic House demanded more federal government, the Senate enforced limitations on the federal government. Levels of corruption are irrelevant to this analysis because it works the same no matter how corrupt the state legislatures are. As Milton Friedman said, the trick with government is incentivizing the wrong people to do the right thing. This is what James Madison meant when he said that they had to "oblige it (the government) to control itself."

    • Wayne Brown profile image

      Wayne Brown 6 years ago from Texas

      I agree with you totally on this issue. States Rights is the main stay of this nation even when it was at its most controversial in the Civil War, it still had merit. The power of the federal government is extending far beyond the reaches envisioned by the Founding Fathers and must be diminished in the name of States Rights. The situation with ObamaCare is one good example and the illegal immigrant situation in Arizona is another. We need big government out of the lives of people and Senators who answer heavily to the government of their states. Thanks for a great article. WB

    • fordie profile image

      fordie 6 years ago from China

      Interesting analysis