Saturday, October 9, 2010

Repealing the 17th Amendment is a Bad Idea

Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller--who scored an upset victory in the primary because of tea party support-- made news for arguing that we should repeal the 17th amendment, which mandates the direct election of Senators. Before, Senators were elected by that state legislature. I don’t think it made sense, either in terms of politics, or in terms of policy.

Part of the tea party’s appeal is that it speaks for regular Americans who are tired of a disconnected liberal elite in Washington. But how can you be a populist when you simultaneously claim that those same average Americans aren’t fit to vote for Senators to represent them in Washington. Voters who really are upset at what they perceive to be out-of-touch elites might question candidates who want to take their power to vote for Senators from them.

In terms of policy, this move would be bad for a few reasons. First, it would nationalize state and local elections. Special interest groups and national parties would have an incentive to focus on local races much more than they had in the past. The problem is that this all prevents voters from being able to have different preferences at different levels of government.

For example, there are some voters who might prefer Democrats on local issues, but Republicans ones on national ones. That is, someone might want Democrats making education policy at the state level, but Republicans to have more power over national security decisions at the national level. By repealing the 17th amendment, this person would have to vote for a Republican for state senate to get a Republican in the national senate.

Second, repealing the 17th amendment will make it harder for newcomers to get into politics. State senators will likely vote for people they have served with for long periods of time, and who have done them lots of favors. To be sure, there is a very real political establishment that plays a role in deciding who has a realistic chance to win office. But under status quo, a newcomer can at least take his case before the broader electorate if he can’t get the establishment to support him. Ironically, this is how tea party candidates like Marco Rubio and Joe Miller won in the first place. If Miller succeeds in repealing the 17th amendment, he will make it harder for grassroots candidates like himself to win office in the future.

Third, repealing the 17th amendment could undermine the legitimacy of the very Senate tea partiers want to change. When people feel like the Senate doesn’t actually represent them, they will lose trust in the institution at best, or at worst come to intensely resent an institution which decides their taxes and whether the country goes to war because they didn’t have a say in electing the membership. In an extreme scenario, voters might push for a constitutional amendment to abolish the Senate.

There are other good arguments against repealing the 17th amendment as well. You can read them here. Suffice it to say, I am more than a bit surprised that serious political thinkers are actually proposing this move.

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