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1913: America's Worst Year - Election Reform

Direct election of senators was a disastrous change.

By Fennoman  |  February 15, 2008

This is a multi-part series examining the worst year in American History: 1913.

When the Constitution was being hammered out, the representatives of the smaller states were worried about their fate if the larger states had more representation, as befit their greater population.  After some back and forth, Robert Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, both of Connecticut, offered what is now known as the "Great Compromise".

The House of Representatives would represent the people with the representatives allocated based on the state's population.  This would be the "people's" house.

The other part of the Compromise was to have each state represented by two senators.  The Senate would then represent the "States".  This was a brilliant compromise that balanced the power between the small and large states (small and large referring to population, not geographic size).

This compromise also enshrined the idea of state sovereignty.  This was accomplished by having the senators selected by the states' legislatures.  This meant that the Senate represented the interests of the several states, not directly the interests of the citizens of the states.

The Senate was what made a Federal government work.  All legislation needed to be in the interest of the states themselves, not just the people of the states.  While the House was responsible for introducing bills to spend money, the Senate would be careful because these bills would impact their states.

Their positions in the Senate were based on the wishes of the state legislatures.  This arrangement made for natural term limits as the legislatures would change and it was unlikely a Senator could make a life's career out of it.  The key point to remember is that the Constitution made sure the interests of the various states were served through the Senate.

The concept of "states' rights" was very important to the original thirteen colonies.  Each state had a character of its own.  Each state had an economy and culture unique.  It was the Great Compromise that helped the states, particularly the smaller states, feel comfortable that they wouldn't be overrun by the larger states or the national government.

The states knew that they had control of the senators and that the senators all had an equal voice.  Even though the House was responsible for spending bills, the Senate could put a halt to anything that began to be burdensome for the states.  It was an arrangement carefully debated and discussed.

But in 1913, that all changed.  Of course, there were many things that led to that fateful passing of the amendment.  Mostly they related to state's senates not being able to elect senators for various reasons.

Rather than solve that problem, populist pressure lead to the passage of the 17th Amendment, making senators directly elected by voters.

They are no different from representatives.  This meant that the Senate was now filled with people who are more concerned with their re-election than with the interests of their home state.  The delicate balance of the Great Compromise was lost.  The states no longer have a voice in the federal government of the United States.

We now have people whose whole professional lives have been spent in the Senate.  Robert Byrd, Strom Thurmond, Ted Kennedy, and other have lived their life in the Senate, on the public dole.  Their actions in the Senate are based on what they need to do to get re-elected, or possibly make a run for the Presidency.  The interests of the state from which they serve are placed behind their own interests.

Not only did the change lead to, in effect, Senators-for-life, but it also has allowed the federal government to do things without paying for them.  One of the long-running debates over Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law is that, while it does provide federal money for local schools, the costs of compliance can often exceed the money granted.  This is known as an "unfunded mandate" - that is, a law requiring you to do something you may not want to do, and making you pay for doing it.

As taxpayers, we are used to this; but for one level of government to be able to demand this of another unbalances the whole system and leads inevitably to higher taxes.  The feds don't have to worry about the cost of their laws, since they make the states foot the bill; the states don't have to worry about justifying the necessary tax increases to their voters, since they can simply point to the federal law and say "We have no choice!"

In some cases, they don't even have to explain that much to the voters; a federal judge will require tax increases to ensure compliance.  This could never take place under the original Constitutional terms of the Great Compromise - any senator that voted for such a thing would be run out of the Senate tarred and feathered by the state legislature that put him there.

No longer do we seem to be a country of united states, but rather a country of individuals living in different states with less sovereignty each time a new bill is passed.  This is the legacy of the 17th Amendment.