26 February, 2009

Should we repeal the 17th Amendment?

A couple months ago, I remember hearing lots of praise for the ability of a certain cross-section of conservative thinkers to take off their blinders and realize the clusterfuck that was the McCain-Palin campaign, among them George Will. But Will has really been headed downhill recently (or reverted to the mean?). First, he makes up a bunch of shit about the non-existence of climate change that should make the Post blush.

Then he attacks Senator Feingold's proposed constitutional amendment, which would revise the 17th Amendment (which provided for the popular election of Senators) in order to do away with gubernatorial appointments to the Senate. Will doesn't just think we shouldn't amend the 17th, as a good federalist he thinks we should repeal it. He states:

The Framers established election of senators by state legislators, under which system the nation got the Great Triumvirate (Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun) and thrived. In 1913, progressives, believing that more, and more direct, democracy is always wonderful, got the 17th Amendment ratified. It stipulates popular election of senators, under which system Wisconsin has elected, among others, Joe McCarthy, as well as Feingold.

Now, I am pretty biased in favor of Feingold, and I think such an amendment is a good idea. That said, I don't think its impervious to criticism or counter arguments. But Will's argument here doesn't make much sense:

a) The Framers establish indirect election of Senators
b) thus we get the Great Triumvirate
c) and so the Nation thrives

But then!

d) 17th amendment requires direct elections
e) Joe McCarthy

Even if you swallow the insult to your intelligence that is this narrative of American history, what are the mechanisms at work supposed to be? Why did (a) lead to (b)? Wasn't there a massive breakdown of our political system resulting in a holocaust of a civil war between (b) and (c)? And how did (d) create (e) exactly? Will thinks the answer is that

Severing senators from state legislatures, which could monitor and even instruct them, made them more susceptible to influence by nationally organized interest groups based in Washington. Many of those groups, who preferred one-stop shopping in Washington to currying favors in all the state capitals, campaigned for the 17th Amendment. So did urban political machines, which were then organizing an uninformed electorate swollen by immigrants. Alliances between such interests and senators led to a lengthening of the senators' tenures.

It takes a special kind of chutzpah for conservatives, whose primary attack against their opponents is to fling around the charge of elitism, to lament the ability of the "uninformed masses" to elect their own representatives (although the anti-immigrant xenophobia still fits right in). Yes, the 17th increased the urban machines' power, and the impact of national interest groups probably rose. But the alternative was an upper chamber forever in the grip of a tiny racial, economic, and social minority that could legislate according to its narrow interests with little or no pressure from the mass of people that had to live with their decisions. This didn't improve governance; it allowed slavery, led to civil war, tolerated Jim Crow, and barred women from the political process.

Look, the Senate is clearly still an exclusive, myopic millionaire's club which legislates far too much on the leverage that various interest groups can bring to bear. And Feingold's amendment will ultimately do little to help that. Neither would a repeal of the 17th, however - it would just make the interest group lobbying and myopia more state-based, which may be reason in and of itself for a federalist like Will, but its not good enough for those who want better policy. Something that would actually help reform the Senate away from interest group distortions, however, is citizen funded elections:

But of course, public financing would be a tragedy for our democracy while disenfranchising millions would re-invigorate it.

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