“The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislatures.”
On Sept. 20, the U.S. Senate will vote on the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a potential swing voter on the issue, is receiving immense pressure from her constituents, including UAA students.
Some encourage her to confirm Kavanaugh and others urge her to vote him down. But there seems to be one assumption that both sides take for granted: that Murkowski’s vote ought to obey the desires of her constituency. I fundamentally challenge this assumption.
Senators were not always subject to populist opinion. In fact, Americans did not even vote for senators prior to 1913. The election to the senate was governed by Article I, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution which read, “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.”
The original framers of the Constitution intended for eligible voters to only elect delegates to the U.S. House of Representatives, and that state legislatures would elect delegates to the U.S. Senate. In 1913, the aforementioned system was superseded by the passage of the 17th Amendment, which established a popular vote for senators in the same manner as representatives. Repealing the 17th Amendment would remove that popular vote and return the power to elect to state legislatures.
There are three reasons why this amendment should be repealed. First, the difference between senators and representatives has become nearly indistinguishable to voters, despite the constitutional separation of powers remaining in effect. This produces a variety of erroneous situations, like Senate candidates talking about introducing the articles of impeachment (a power of the House) or representatives trying to legislate on international treaties (a power of the Senate). Since representatives and senators have to appeal to the same voting population, their campaign messages become extremely similar. Senators are more likely to spend time talking about local issues near and dear to voters’ lives, as opposed to distant issues like foreign policy. This leaves some major senatorial duties unaddressed and others vulnerable to misinformation.
Second, the interests of state governments may be different than the interests of ordinary people. This is why removing the popular vote for senators is not an undemocratic move.
Instead, it increases state influence over federal legislation and orients voters squarely on their representative(s). For example, the State of Alaska is more interested in federal oil lease permitting for Foggy Island Bay than most ordinary Alaskans are. If the Alaska State Legislature is given the right to decide on Sen. Dan Sullivan’s reelection in 2020, then his job security will depend on how effective he helps with that permitting via federal legislation. Additionally, the State of Alaska’s ability to influence the federal government will be equal to all other states, since every state can elect no more than two senators to Congress.
The only factor that would change that is the effectiveness of each senator in writing solid legislation with strong support. State legislatures will be more likely to elect intelligent professionals than ideological firebrands, because it’s only the former that prioritizes results over rhetoric.
Third, repealing the 17th Amendment would help insulate the Senate from populism. While the House can be as wildly ideological as it’s voters may wish for, their power in Congress could still be balanced by the calm, technocratic makeup of the Senate. Article I of the Constitution supports this argument. Representatives are elected every two years, which is consistent with how frequently people’s fears and desires about politics can change.
Senators are elected every six years, which makes more sense for state governments who rely on consistency and predictability in federal government. The intention is that the House would have a high rate of turnover, and it would be populated by representatives who embody their constituents as accurately as possible. Meanwhile, the Senate will remain consistent, professional and level-headed. Instead, we have Rep. Don Young serving since 1973 and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-O.K.) disproving climate change by flaunting a snowball on the senate floor. Thanks to the 17th Amendment, ideologues are just as likely to infiltrate the Senate as they can in the House. Voters tend to be skeptical of calm, intelligent professionals, since they’re often perceived as being callous aristocrats without any flair.
Every opportunity must be taken to increase state influence over federal legislation. This makes the federal government less like a 51st behemoth overlord and more like a voluntary consortium of 50 states. Repealing the 17th Amendment is a good start. If nothing else, it will free up our senators to make truly independent and rational decisions. When Murkowski casts her vote on Kavanaugh, I want her to do so with her state and country in mind — not on whether or not it will anger voters and cost her a reelection.