Dangerous Proposal to Repeal the 17th Amendment

The current U.S. Congress is overall probably the worst in history. Allowing state legislatures to elect senators is really another method to subordinate the majority of the population to pernicious big business interests.

If this project is approved by ALEC members, the resolution will become part of ALEC’s agenda for the states—advanced by conservative legislators who have established a pattern of rubber-stamping ALEC’s “model legislation.” If successful, they will reverse one of the great strides toward democracy in American history: the 1913 decision to end the corrupt practice of letting state legislators barter off Senate seats in backroom deals with campaign donors and lobbyists.

Make no mistake: Doing away with the direct election of senators would make Congress less representative and more likely to bend to corporate pressure on issues ranging from health care to wages to Social Security. The Senate would also, in all likelihood, become more socially conservative on issues such as abortion rights, gay rights, and the separation of church and state.

How so? Republicans currently hold 52 US Senate seats. Democrats hold 46, while two independents (Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Maine’s Angus King) caucus with the minority. That 52-48 divide does not accurately reflect the sentiments of great mass of Americans. In 2016, for instance, 51,496,682 Americans cast ballots for Democratic Senate candidates (including a pair of Democrats running in California) while 40,402,790 cast Republican ballots, yet the Republicans took 22 seats to 12 for the Democrats.

If state legislatures were to begin naming senators, the imbalance in the upper chamber would almost certainly grow. Republicans currently control 32 state legislatures (including the titularly nonpartisan single chamber in Nebraska) and Democrat have clear control in 12 states. In six other states, power is divided between the parties—although the divisions are complicated and potentially in flux because of shifting coalitions and special elections to fill vacancies.

Let’s focus on the 32 legislatures where Republicans have control: If Republicans were to maintain their current advantage, and if they were empowered to replace all sitting Democratic senators at the end of their current terms, they could shape a Senate with at least 64 Republican members.

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But that prospect of a 64-36 split is the Senate is genuine, and it is hardly unreasonable to suggest the possibility of a 67-33 split that would allow for one-party approval of a constitutional amendment.

That’s just a rough measure of the changes that could occur. Legislatures controlled by right-wing Republicans could reject relatively moderate Republicans. Legislatures controlled by Republicans or Democrats could reject independents such as Sanders and King. And campaign contributors such as the Koch brothers and their network of right-wing billionaires, which already has tremendous influence in statehouses, could actually get more senators who are to their liking.

Overturning the 17th Amendment would not be easy. For one thing, there is no evidence that Americans favor the change. But as Republican legislators move closer to the numbers they need to demand a “convention of the states” to enact a “Balanced Budget Amendment” that would constrain the federal government by effectively dictating budgeting priorities, it is wise to be wary of those who seek to constrain democracy itself.