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Repeal the 17th amendment?

Blog_Bartels_Income_Responsiveness_0.jpg

During our discussion of the filibuster today -- which you can stream over at C-SPAN's Web site -- Heritage's Brian Darling talked a bit about the Senate's important role as a voice for the states. Responding to a questioner, he went so far as to say he'd consider repeal of the 17th amendment, which would mean that senators would again be elected by state legislatures rather than voters.

I've never understood this sort of thing, and said so in the panel. The Founders didn't wisely orient the Senate around states. They pragmatically oriented the Senate around states. But now that we've been the United States of America for a while and none of the states seem likely to secede, the fact that California has 69 times more people than Wyoming but the same representation in the Senate is an offensive anachronism, at least to Californians.

I went on to say that at this point in history, if we wanted the upper body to be based around quotas, then income, age bracket and education made more sense than states. Then I came home and read Kevin Drum's post echoing Larry Bartels's research (pdf) showing "that the responsiveness of senators to the views of the poor and working class is....zero. Or maybe even negative. And that's true for both parties. The middle class does better — again, with both parties — and high earners do better still." Conversely, the body's responsiveness to the views of North Dakota's farmers is really incredible.

Back in February, Annie Lowrey* wrote a piece estimating the Senate's composition if it was organized around income, gender and race, and age. For our purposes, imagine the income-based Senate:

Based on Census Bureau data, five senators would represent Americans earning between $100,000 and $1 million individually per year, with a single senator working on behalf of the millionaires (technically, it would be two-tenths of a senator). Eight senators would represent Americans with no income. Sixteen would represent Americans who make less than $10,000 a year, an amount well below the federal poverty line for families. The bulk of the senators would work on behalf of the middle class, with 34 representing Americans making $30,000 to $80,000 per year.

Imagine trying to convince someone -- Michael Bloomberg, perhaps? -- to be the lonely senator representing the richest percentile. And what if the senators were apportioned according to jobs figures? This year, the unemployed would have gained two seats.

And by now, I bet they'd have gained even more seats than that. My hunch is that this Senate wouldn't have had any trouble at all passing extensions of unemployment insurance. Which isn't to say we should blow up the Senate and refashion it based on people's W-2 forms. But it is worth thinking about what the body's imbalances mean in practice. The fact that states have relatively weak needs has, I think, contributed to a situation in which party affiliation -- and not state conditions -- are far and away the most powerful determinants of voting.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 3, 2010; 4:23 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Comments

here's something to close the day with

http://blogs.wsj.com/deals/2010/09/02/ben-bernankes-labor-day-reading-list/

Posted by: bdballard | September 3, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

I still fail to see how any other measure works any better than the current system.

Yes CA gets shafted in the Senate, but North Dakota gets shafted in the house due to reduced representation.

We can be a nation of simply majority rules or we can have a system that attempts to mitigate that a bit and give equal representation based on some non-population based criteria.

Splitting by State has its historical roots, but realistically, is anything else any better?

Posted by: rpixley220 | September 3, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

It's likely that before long the following two crap arguments will be made on this thread. So I'll pre-empt them.

(1) The U.S. is not a democracy. It is a "republic".
(2) The founders didn't intend the senate to be democratic.

In answer to (1): If the U.S. is indeed not a democracy then that's a pretty damning verdict. Almost every other advanced nation is a democracy, and it's a pretty good form of government.

As for (2): Who cares what the founders had in mind or what the historical circumstances were? The founders were fallible. This is 2010. Why is an undemocratic senate justified now?

Posted by: Modicum | September 3, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

Ironically, the largest impact on repealing the 17th amendment may not be on the composition of the Senate, but on the nationalization of state legislatures.

The largest single issue in elections for state legislatures would instantly become the election of Senate representation. All state representatives and senators would be required to stake positions on national issues, as well as state and local issues (talk about overkill, especially for small states where legislatures only meet for a portion of the year). The extreme partisanship on the national scene would, to borrow a phrase, trickle down to state elections, and just as the most important vote any member of congress casts is which side they caucus with, state legislatures would become the same, twice over.

National parties would seek to assert more control, and every election would be like that preceding state level redistricting.

In the end, the distiction may not be one between elites and non-elites, rich vs middle class vs poor, but Democrat vs Republican.

Posted by: NickM2 | September 3, 2010 6:10 PM | Report abuse

I get a big smile on my face everytime you roll out The Annie Lowrey Disclaimer Spot. :)

Posted by: toshiaki | September 3, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

"(1) The U.S. is not a democracy. It is a "republic"."

Also, as should be pointed out every single time this is brought up: prior to James Madison confusing things, these words did not refer to different systems of governance. The only real difference between them was that one was Greek in lingual origin and the other Latin.

Now, we could differentiate between different *instruments* used by a democratic polity (in which ultimate authority rests with the polis) to translate mass preferences into policy - a direct from a representative mechanism for instance. In fact, this is the distinction that the "republic not a democracy" nonsense actually attempts to get at, but it doesn't actually do much work in this context. A democracy working through representatives should, well, be representative in some meaningful sense - it is simply that the connection is not as easy to establish as with direct forms of control by the populace.

When people say "it's a republic not a democratic" all they are doing is signaling their desire for policy to conform to their wishes in some sense through a justification based not on reason but on a misuse of political concepts that they believe should have authoritative power in the argument.

Posted by: y2josh_us | September 3, 2010 6:50 PM | Report abuse

From James Madsion during the Constitutional Convention debate on how Senators should be appointed. I see no argument yet that disproves that Madison's prediction came true since the adoption of the 17 Amendment. The Senate is MORE corrupt not less after the Amendment passed. Read the last sentence 3 times if you need to.

--
Mr. MADISON: could as little comprehend in what manner family weight, as desired by Mr. Dickerson. would be more certainly conveyed into the Senate through elections by the State Legislatures, than in some other modes. The true question was in what mode the best choice wd. be made? If an election by the people, or thro' any other channel than the State Legislatures promised as uncorrupt & impartial a preference of merit, there could surely be no necessity for an appointment by those Legislatures. Nor was it apparent that a more useful check would be derived thro' that channel than from the people thro' some other. The great evils complained of were that the State Legislatures run into schemes of paper money &c. whenever solicited by the people, & sometimes without even the sanction of the people. Their influence then, instead of checking a like propensity in the National Legislature, may be expected to promote it. Nothing can be more contradictory than to say that the National Legislature without a proper check, will follow the example of the State Legislatures, & in the same breath, that the State Legislatures are the only proper check."

Posted by: Dug0915 | September 3, 2010 10:18 PM | Report abuse

I drive my vehicle to work in the morning. My daughter goes to school in a car, while my wife uses an automobile for her nite shift.

We all use the same conveyance.

Posted by: jazygpa | September 3, 2010 10:33 PM | Report abuse

I drive my vehicle to work in the morning. My daughter goes to school in a car, while my wife uses an automobile for her nite shift.

We all use the same conveyance.

Posted by: jazygpa | September 3, 2010 10:34 PM | Report abuse

You can't have a direct simple representative democracy by just passing the 17th. In fact, passing the 17th takes us farther AWAY from that goal if that IS in fact the goal. By changing who Senators actually represented it creates massive voter inequality, turning on it's head the idea that each citizen's vote should have no more power than any other citizens vote.

The reason why they did not change the Senate to proportional voting is because the second part of Article V guarantees each State equal suffrage in the Senate and would require a change to Article V which the pushers of the 17th KNEW would go nowhere.

So instead we have the worst of both worlds, neither real Federalism in the Senate NOR voter equality. It sucks, get rid of it and have a REAL debate about getting rid of Federalism instead of ignoring the issue for the last 100 years.

Posted by: Dug0915 | September 3, 2010 10:44 PM | Report abuse

Nikki, yes it is true you can save money on your auto insurance by making few simple changes find how much you can save http://bit.ly/cHUBop

Posted by: cadynhenry04 | September 4, 2010 2:00 AM | Report abuse

Dug0915 is right about the Senate. Here is the Constitution's amendment provision:
"The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate."

We could make the body much larger by having three or four Senators for every state, but I am not sure that would be an improvement.

Posted by: TigerHawk | September 4, 2010 6:40 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, it's not fair. We need a lot of flexibility for the states to act independently. Senate composition could be determined by tax contribution.

Posted by: staticvars | September 4, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

Article V is not a barrier to reforming the senate.

The article is not self-entrenched. So the rule that "no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the senate" could be repealed by just three-quarters of the states. Then a second amendment could be used to reform the senate.

Alternatively Article V can be bypassed by using a constitutional convention or a referendum to enact a new constitution.

Posted by: Modicum | September 4, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

In my 2002 science fiction novel Dance for the Ivory Madonna, I postulated a third house of Congress based on interest groups. Each interest group had to represent at least 1% of the population, and there was a limit of 501 of them. Each voter had 6 votes which they could distribute among candidates in up to 6 interest groups.

I don't think this would work in the real world today, but it was an interesting thought experiment.

Posted by: DonSakers | September 4, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

I think almost any system of representation would be better than what we have now.

Posted by: stillaliberal | September 4, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

There is one more method that I don't think has been tried. There are arguments that by passing the 17th amendment, the second part of Article V which states that no State shall be DEPRVIVED of equal Suffrage has been violated.

This is because you can't have "Equal Suffrage" without "Suffrage". The 17th Amendment removes State suffrage because it no longer represents States (as defined by borders and a government) but the people directly.

Theoretically, a State could bring a suit against the Federal Government with the argument that the 17th Amendment violates Article V, which although was for a different reason the Supreme Court said in Sprague vs U.S. that Article V is clear and unambiguous in meaning in it's entirety.

Posted by: Dug0915 | September 4, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

It's generally accepted that there are 2 or 3 parts of the constitution which cannot be changed by amendment process. Article V is one of them because the reasoning is that allowing the amendment process to change article V would allow a bunch of states to gang up on a smaller one. I believe (can't be sure) that this was confirmed by the Supreme Court at some point.

Posted by: Dug0915 | September 4, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Race, Class, Gender!!

Posted by: soma_king | September 4, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

Race, Class, Gender!!

Posted by: soma_king | September 4, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

Oh, good God, those poor Californians and New Yorkers are so screwed, but changing the Constitution is so damn hard … I know … let’s get rid of the filibuster and it will lessen the impact on those poor pathetic folks.

Posted by: warnerme | September 4, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

The Senate is not broken nor does it need reform.
Our venerable Founding Fathers did not see the federal government as the sole repository of power. They divided power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. They further recognized the role of states as distinct entities when they set up the Senate.
There is a good argument to repeal the 17th Amendment to restore state representation to the Senate in a more pure form. Furthermore, the reason why it still makes sense to have a Senate with all 50 states having 2 votes is to recognize that states are an important and reasonable means to apportion representation to the federal government. We need to remember that not all power resides in the federal government. Only limited powers. The States and the people retain powers that the federal government should not infringe.
I think Progressives are angry with the Senate, because it is the only impediment to complete control for a left wing agenda. The Senate is serving an important purpose to slow one party rule in DC and to prevent the temporary majority of Obama supporters to vastly expand the federal government.
The expected events at the voting box this Fall will restore some sanity to Washington and bring a few constitutional conservatives to provide a brake to the Obama agenda.

Posted by: Brian_Darling | September 4, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

There are quite a lot of good-government, nonpartisan arguments for repealing the 17th Amendment: http://www.restorefederalism.org

Posted by: EmpFab | September 4, 2010 9:58 PM | Report abuse

Your title is a bit off. If the 17th amendment were repealed Senators would still represent states, they would just be chosen as the state legislature decides (as are Presidential electors).

The correct title is "Overthrow the US Constitution by force". Your wish can not be obtained by any constitutional means.

Almost all aspects of the constitution can be changed by amendments (the USA could be made a hereditary monarchy for example). However, each state must have equal representation in the Senate.

I quote Article Five in full

Article V - Amendment

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

And that is that, short of a revolution or coup, there is nothing to be done about the absurd imbalance of the Senate. That is the one constitutional principle so fundamental that it can't be changed by an amendment.

Posted by: rjw88 | September 6, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

rjw88 is right. Which makes the 17th Amendment even more stupid, because you can't make the Senate "democratic" without voter inequality between big and small states. Once it was changed it made it less democratic, not more. Since the Senate can't be abolished by amendment, nor changed for proportional representation due to Article V nothing short of a complete re-write of the constitution would be needed. The Senate is woven through the mechanics of the Constitution and getting rid of it would require MANY changes to other parts of the document.

Posted by: Dug0915 | September 7, 2010 7:05 AM | Report abuse

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