Writings and observations

Taking the 17th

That Tea Party questionnaire delivered to Idaho candidates, and signed by a number of them, has all sort of peculiar entries. Maybe the most peculiar of all has gotten little attention, but it should for what it says about the real nature of the Tea Party, and the forces behind it.

It came up, though, when the two main candidates for the Republican nomination in Idaho’s 1st congressional district, Vaughn Ward and Raul Labrador, appeared on an Idaho Public Television weekly program in a near-debate. One of the questions (at just past the 13-minute mark) that may have seemed obscure to many voters came from analyst Jim Weatherby, who had noticed that the Tea Party form indicated support for repeal of the 17th amendment, and that both Ward and Labrador had said they supported repeal.

The 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1913, and it changed a procedure in place since the nation’s founding. Up to then, U.S. senators had been chosen by state legislators. The amendment, which was enacted as part of the progressive movement, changed that to provide that the voters of each state would do the honors.

The state legislatures idea grew out of the caution that the nation’s founders had about placing power directly in the hands of ordinary voters; those voters, remember, were once far more limited (by gender, property ownership and otherwise) than they are now. As the right to vote expanded, so gradually did demands that voters rather than politicians choose their own senators.

Eventually, problems associated with legislative selection made the case ever stronger. In some cases, legislatures deadlocked over choices, and states went without senatorial representation for years. Worse than that were the many cases of bribery and corruption; a seat in the U.S. Senate was something worth bribing and corrupting over. Popular election of senators has hardly been a perfect thing, but it has worked a lot more smoothly than its predecessor approach.

So why would the Tea Party, which likes to present itself as a movement which takes power away from politicians to give it to “the people,” be so enamored of this idea that specifically and clearly does the opposite? Ward and Labrador were at best incoherent in delivering sort-of answers, making reference to states rights. “I think it’s important that the senators be beholden to the people of Idaho,” Labrador responded at one point; but this change would make them directly beholden not to the voters but to fellow-politician legislators. Under either plan, senators are chosen within the various states; the question is whether they are beholden to the state’s voters or to a majority of the state’s legislators. (Ward said that he agreed.) Could it just be a general disapproval of every reform enacted in the United States since the dawn of the 20th century? (If so, there go the initiative, referendum and recall too.)

Maybe more specifically: Who benefits from such an approach?

Presumably, the same people who tended to benefit way back then: Those who have the big bucks to corrupt state legislators with, and to buy Senate seats – which often is exactly what happened in the 19th century.

Good plan, guys, for taking back government for “the people.” You just have to be clearer about which people would be getting the government under their control . . .

UPDATE In his blog, Adam Graham refers to the televised exchange on this: “Weatherby called this out as some big problem.In reality, it’s one of those conservative wish list items that Ward and Labrador won’t spend one minute thinking about if elected to Congress. It’s because moments like this that the issue won’t be addressed, because the argument is not given a serious treatment.” There’s a bit of news, actually, in that: Since when is taking away election of senators from the voters and giving it to the legislature a “conservative wish list item”? Can’t recall seeing it in years past; maybe missed it. But if in any event it is now, why is that? What’s the appeal in it for conservatives, even if they (Graham, at least) consider it a long-shot preference?

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One Comment

  1. fortboise said:

    Adam’s assessment of the bulk of the exchange pretty much matches mine, which is an odd place for me to find myself.

    But his bullet point about the 17th amendment was nigh on incoherent, as is the issue. (At least until we have the hour-long “Lincoln-Douglas style debate,” for which I’m dying to find out which one Adam will be.)

    It was appropriate for Weatherby to bring it up, because it stood out in the Tea Party questionnaire. What’s up with this? We don’t really know, but we support the repeal of the 100-year-old amendment. Any other amendments you folks think we should do away with?

    The criticism that Weatherby bringing it up when there wasn’t really time to give it a thorough discussion… seriously? Let’s see a show of hands for people who think Ward and Labrador are prepared to have a serious discussion of this issue.

    I thought so.

    May 3, 2010

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