This semester, the Buckley Program held a college essay contest with the topic: If you could propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, what would it be? The following essay by Noah Daponte-Smith, a senior in Berkeley College, won 2nd place.
In 1913, after winning the approval of three-quarters of the state legislatures, the Constitution was amended for the seventeenth time. This was a grievous mistake, one which obliterated the traditional and proper structure of American constitutional democracy, permitted a noxious sort of popular sentiment to pervade the American system, and introduced into our governance a fatally confused sense of the will of the people. The 27th amendment to the Constitution should repeal the seventeenth, returning American governance to the system the Founders envisioned.
The content of the 17th amendment was simple enough: It provided for the election of senators by popular vote in their states, rather than the previous system of selection by the state legislatures. Such a change, it was felt — not entirely without reason — would democratize the federal government at a time of its rapid accrual of power, subvert the rampant corruption in state legislatures picking senators, and most importantly enhance the voice of the people in their own self-government. All laudable goals, no?
On the face of it, yes. But let us reflect on the three flaws listed above, and we shall begin to see the amendment for the folly it was.
On the first count, we must remind ourselves of the original structure of American democracy, at least as the Founders laid it out. Their particular innovation was to create a form of democratic government neither purely confederal nor purely popular in nature. Rather, it was an amalgam of the two, artfully placed in careful harmony. The people of the Union would express their voice in the House of Representatives, and the states in the Senate; the President, sitting above and alongside the two, would be selected through an interaction of the two entities: by the people, but through the states. When the Progressives of the early 20th century passed the 17th amendment, they irreparably altered this system. Now the House represented the people, but so did the Senate, too; the states as such had no voice, being fully subsumed by the popular instinct.
Which brings us to the second point: that the 17th amendment has done much to transform American government from an institution of measured deliberation, which confined the excesses of popular grandstanding to the House alone, into one in which no individual can be said to stand apart from the masses. The Senate, once the constitutional equivalent of the House of Lords, is now home to the worst of demagogues and rabble-rousers, intent on fomenting popular support with their deceit. This is natural, of course, given the system we have constructed: A senator’s obligation is now to the people of his state, not to the state itself, and individuals do nothing but follow the incentives offered to them.
Now we come to the final flaw, and this perhaps the most fatal. In the original system — the one dreamed up in the heady summer of 1787 — the voice of the people had one place of expression, and one voice only. Elected in its entirety at regular intervals, the House could be properly understood to present a single, unified expression of the popular will. The Senate, on the other hand, was understood to stand for the states, and to represent different interests from those of the House. These careful divisions made the system one of precision and exactitude, with uncertainty and confusion reduced to the minimal possible levels.
The same could not be said of the system after the changes wrought by the 17th amendment. Whereas once the people spoke with one voice at federal level, now their voice is divided in two: one half in the House, the other in the Senate. That the intervals of election and methods of selection of the two bodies do not correspond leads us to disagreement between them. In the original system, this would be no serious matter — the states and the people are different entities, after all — but in the current one it gives the appearance that the people are divided against themselves, that their voice is confused and contradictory. What might have been a constructive, deliberative dialogue between the representatives of two entities, each recognizing their separate interests, becomes instead the worst sort of partisan gridlock, an unedifying shouting match with no means of resolving it save a recourse to raw electoral power.
There is a means of remedying this situation: Repeal the 17th amendment, and replace it with a mandate that senators be selected by the legislatures of their respective states. Allow the voice of the people to become whole again, and allow the voice of the states — as states — to return to the halls of Congress. By doing so we would reintroduce the clarity, the careful delineations of legitimacy and representation, American government has sorely lacked in recent decades.