Restoring Checks and Balances
Updated: Oct 23
By Theodore G.
Just seven years after its big 100th anniversary, calls are being made to repeal the 17th Amendment to the U.S Constitution. On September 8, 2020, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) published an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal calling to make the Senate great again and, among other proposals, was the thought that perhaps the most significant change to how the Senate works ever, the 17th Amendment, should be repealed. This amendment changed senators from being appointed by the state legislatures to being elected by the people. Repealing it is not exactly a new idea; the proposition has been floating around in conservative circles for years, but it has never gotten the type of attention to let it take off, which is too bad because, despite Senator Sasse’s numerous misguided plans, he seems to have hit on an idea worth exploring. The 17th Amendment was created in a good-faith attempt to allow the people more of a voice in their government but inadvertently undermined the whole reason it exists.
The Senate is not the people’s chamber; that is the House of Representatives. The Senate was intended to be an upper legislature able to constrain the passions of the masses. That is why the age limit is higher, and the terms are longer. Experienced and older politicians are overrepresented in the Senate on purpose in order to make sure that misguided radical change is not hastily passed through. Another critical component of this advantage, however, is the members’ being elected by state legislatures. This feature removes them from the people by one step and increases the likelihood that they will act in the country’s best interest instead of just trying to be reelected. The people’s passions are fickle, and anybody whose job relies on them will be less grounded in principle and more in job security. With the 17th Amendment, we now have two people’s chambers and none to protect the country’s better interests. For this advantage that we have lost, there is no remedy but to repeal the Amendment.
The second primary purpose that the Senate serves is the melody that all of the Constitution is supposed to sing; limited government through checks and balances. The idea is that every government branch should have power over the others, and because everybody is self-interested and wants the maximum power, limited government will be reached. The Senate, under its original composition, was a significant part of this delicate balance. James Madison described its function in the Federalist Papers, the series of essays defending the Constitution during ratification, as “giving to the state governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government as must secure the authority of the former, and may form a convenient link between the two systems.” In essence, the Senate was created to allow the state governments power over the federal government. It was the way to make sure that an ever-increasing federal government could not trample on states’ rights. It is no coincidence that the federal encroachment on states’ rights started mainly after 1913, the year the 17th Amendment was added to the Constitution. These types of perversions of the Constitution’s intent are dangerous because the more power that can be concentrated, the more the chance for misuse of it is intensified. Repealing the 17th Amendment would restore this parity and help to rebuild our checks and balances.
An op-ed titled in President Trump’s style is not generally where we should be looking for constitutional direction, but among the inane proposals, there is one that gleams with promise. Hopefully, this will be the time when the idea reaches broad appeal, and hopefully, the 17th Amendment will never celebrate its 200th anniversary.