Don’t repeal the 17th Amendment

APRIL 2, 2010
It would increase corruption and limit democracy.
    Seemingly embittered by the passage of the health care reform, Congressman Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, has proposed a radical action to help his party: repealing the 17th Amendment — which mandates the direct election of senators. Instead, Gohmert would have state legislatures once again elect U.S. senators.
    This isn’t a new idea — over the last few years it has been gaining popularity with conservative proponents of federalism. The theory behind this revision is that it would increase the power of the states in the political process, and have elected officials who, presumably, would care primarily about the state’s interest. Perhaps not coincidentally, the plan would probably benefit the Republican Party, adding a handful of senators to its total number of representatives.
    While Gohmert and others may like the short-term political benefit, it does beg a basic question: Have any of its proponents looked at the state of state legislatures? The “laboratories of democracy” have not exactly been the source of national pride, as they are frequently in the news for some new leadership indictment. For example, over the last few years current and former legislative leaders in New York, Massachusetts, Alaska and Florida were indicted on corruption-based charges. It is rare that a state doesn’t have prominent legislative leaders facing investigation and indictment.
    But what would be the practical effect if the state legislatures were tasked with choosing senators? Currently, Senatorial hopefuls have to raise and spend a huge amount of money to have a chance at winning election. The money is needed to woo voters — as it is spent on ads, get-out-the-vote campaigns and others basics tool of electoral democracy.
    Repealing the 17th Amendment would not remove this pervasive influence of money in the process. Candidates would still spend a ton of it (both personal and fundraised) to win office — only this time it would be directed at one specific interest group: state legislators. The senators and assembly representatives would be showered with campaign funds and other potential benefits (after all, many of the part-time legislators hold outside jobs). Avoiding bribery and corruption in the selection process was one of the stated impetuses for the 17th Amendment in the first place. Despite a century of campaign finance reform debates and better investigative techniques, nothing has really changed with the state legislature. We may quickly find that enough legislators are still susceptible to financial inducements.
    But that is not the only problem. State legislative elections would be instantly nationalized. We would quickly see massive amounts of campaign money spent to influence key local races. The issues that state legislators ran on would be further nationalized, turning local races on local issues into a national fever pitch environment, with the election decided on topics that have nothing to do with an average legislator’s job. This already happens, of course, but it will become the norm. We can also expect recall elections run specifically to try and gain the majority in a closely divided legislature. This has also already happened, but may be a regular occurrence under the new system.
    Maybe the worst result is one that is already being threatened — the growth in importance of gerrymandering. Redistricting is already overwhelmingly important. After the census is taken each decade, state legislatures redraw district lines. The law requires that each district contain an equal population. But even with this limitation, political leaders are able to slice the maps to maximize political benefit. Elected officials are aware that, with careful crafting skills, they can give themselves and nearly everybody in their party virtually unbeatable districts. The value is so great that former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay basically gambled his career on doing a controversial mid-term redistricting to score a few more seats for the Republicans in Texas.     This year both parties are raising and spending money specifically to elect state legislators to help win the gerrymandering war. Imagine how much more intense this battle will become, and how much more the parties will lean on abusive redistricting practices, if the U.S. Senate itself is actually at stake.
    The argument to get rid of the direct election of senators is a tough sell. It goes against the strong current in America favor of increased democracy. Though they claim it would benefit the populace by restoring the federal-state balance and presumably limit government, proponents would have to overcome the argument that they, in effect, do not trust the American people to properly select their own officials.
    These are high hurdles to jump. Just as bad, though, is if voters are asked to take a look at the modern record of state legislatures throughout the country. While they may decide that repealing the 17th Amendment is not the worst idea in the world, they’ll certainly realize it’s up there.
    Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College.