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Our 17th amendment problem.

Posted/updated on: October 26, 2017 at 4:09 pm
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AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

You may not know the 17th amendment to the Constitution specifically but you are living with its effects and – by my estimation – not happily.

Prior to the 17th amendment in 1913, United States senators were elected by state legislatures. The idea was this. The House of Representatives would be comprised of members elected by the people from individual congressional districts in each of the states, the number of districts dictated by the state’s population.

The Senate would be comprised of two members from each state regardless of population. The House was to represent the people. The Senate was to represent the states.

The states need the representation. Our federal republic is just that – a republic. It’s not a direct democracy in which a majority of the people rule. It’s a union of people and states and it was intended that each state retain a high degree of sovereignty. The central issue at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 centered on figuring out how to give the federal government the authority it needed without unduly weakening the states.

Thus, it was decided that state legislatures would see to their interests at the federal level via the mechanism of two members each in the United States Senate.

But that was undone by the 17th amendment. Today, senators are elected by the people, just as representatives are. A senator today is really nothing more than a congressman who hangs around longer, gets paid more and is proportionally less accountable to any single voter.

The states are certainly not well represented. The fact that senators are no longer answerable to their respective state legislatures explains in large measure why the states have devolved into de facto branch offices of the federal government.

As to better, more accountable representation for the people, try this. Call any of Senator John Cornyn’s offices in Washington or Texas and try to get an actual human on the phone.

You won’t.

Instead, you’ll hit a voice mail wall. Cornyn will speak to you in a recording and assure you that he is supremely anxious to hear your thoughts on the issues that are important to you and your family, and blah, blah, blah, and please leave a message. (Note that he won’t ask you to leave your number. No one’s going to call you back. Just leave a message. Some intern will eventually listen to it.)

This is all because John Cornyn is elected by you but in actual practice he’s not really all that accountable to you. He is accountable to the National Republican Senate Committee. He’s accountable to certain donors and industry lobbyists.

But as it pertains to you, he’ll take a few bucks if you’re willing. But what he really needs is your amnesia every six years.

Yes, John Cornyn and his GOP colleagues promised to repeal Obamacare and have now failed. But I doubt that Cornyn is terribly worried about losing his job when it comes up in 2020.

For that you can thank that amnesia that I mentioned – along with the 17th amendment.


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