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Friday, March 4, 2011

On the Tea Party’s Challenge to the 17th Amendment: The U.S. Senate in the U.S. Government

According to David Firestone of The New York Times, a “surprising number” of the Tea Party members were calling for the repeal of the 17th Amendment of the US Constitution during the election campaign season of 2010. That amendment, which was ratified in 1913, provides for direct election by the people of each state of US senators. According to Firestone, “allowing Americans to choose their own senators seems so obvious that it is hard to remember that the nation’s founders didn’t really trust voters with the job. The people were given the right to elect House members. But senators were supposed to be a check on popular rowdiness and factionalism. They were appointed by state legislatures.” That it may seem so obvious to us does not mean that we have it right. Yet Firestone presumes so in writing, “a  modern appreciation of democracy — not to mention a clear-eyed appraisal of today’s dysfunctional state legislatures — should make the idea unthinkable.” Should it really?  Firestone seems biased in his dogmatism.

For one thing, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1786 didn’t want to restrict direct representative democracy in the US Government to the US House only out of fear of mob rule as Firestone suggests.  They thought the direct power of the state governments in the US Government would be necessary to keep the new empire from consolidating at the imperial level (i.e., in the US Government). Firestone himself admits that to most authors of the Constitution, “allowing states to appoint the Senate was the linchpin of the entire federalist system and the real reason there are two houses of Congress.” Whereas the British House of Lords represents wealth, the US Senate was to represent not only that, but semi-sovereign republics as well.  The latter likens the US Senate to the European Council rather than to the upper chamber of one of the EU’s states.  Firestone makes a category mistake where he avers that it “may be true that appointed senators, accountable only to state legislators, would never approve of many useful federal mandates designed to put the national interest above local parochialism — including everything from the minimum wage to the new health care reform law.” States commensurate with European kingdoms/countries are not local polities.  Furthermore, reducing the US Government to a “national” interest ignores the semi-sovereign nature of the states (and thus the international principles in the design of the US Senate as opposed to the US House, which is national in nature).

Firestone seems to misunderstand what the US Senate is.  In referring to returning to having the state legislatures appoint their delegates to the US Senate as an “elitist notion,” Firestone forgets that state legislators are elected by the people and in fact have smaller electorates than do US House or Senate members.  Empowering state legislators would ironically be to bring power back closer to the people.  ”Senate candidates have to raise so much money to run that they become beholden to special interests,” Tea Party members say according to Firestone.  The members ”argue that state legislators would not be as compromised and would choose senators who truly put their state’s needs first.” That in turn would restore checks and balance to federalism, wherein both the state and federal governments would be checked (by the other). This is not just a matter of state rights; rather, it is a matter of a viable federalism instead of consolidation. As Tim Bridgewater, who ousted Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah as the Republican candidate writes, “We traded senators who represent rights of states for senators who represent the rights of special interest groups.” By rights of the states, one can infer an empowerment of the representatives elected by the people of the states.  Such a change would hardly be anti-democratic or elitist; rather, it would reduce the power of the elitism in Washington DC.  A writer ought to be careful in dogmatically writing that something is ridiculous or unthinkable, for the lack of thought could come back to haunt him or her.  It is clear that Firestone is not very open to the possibility that he could be wrong.  The arrogance of centralized power at an empire-level is truly remarkable, even in its press.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/01/opinion/01tue4.html?hp