The Nation's Pulse

Civics Lessons 2010

With special thanks to Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck for one of those brief shining moments.

By 9.7.10

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When Colorado Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck briefly (and temporarily) suggested support for allowing state legislatures rather than the public to select U.S. senators, he stuck his well-known bovine digestive refuse-covered boots into the messy civics lesson that is the 2010 election.

For the first time during my 25 years of following politics, people who have the poor taste to bring up (in public!) the Founders, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, natural rights, and basic precepts of good government are no longer automatically judged to be wacko fringe extremists and likely members of "militias," nor automatically tagged with the perennial establishment insult of "libertarian" -- being called which has always been my own version of Br'er Rabbit being thrown into the briar patch.

The American public, with minds largely uncluttered -- just how the left wants you -- by a basic education in what used to be called "civics" (then "social studies," and now "comparative Native American basket weaving philosophies -- see footnote on page 273 for information on George Washington"), is learning the importance of fundamental American precepts the hard way: by living through government of, by, and for people who dislike, distrust, and completely misunderstand those precepts.

The day after Mr. Buck expressed his position on legislatures selecting senators, he retracted that position and has restated his current position -- leaving the election of senators in the hands of the public -- multiple times since. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ("DSCC") nevertheless ran an ad calling Buck's idea "radically different," saying Buck wants to "rewrite the Constitution" and "end our right to vote."

The message of the DSCC is that Ken Buck, a mainstream conservative Republican, is "extreme." But the presumption of their message is that Americans are too ignorant of our own history to know that Ken Buck's original suggestion represented little more than returning to the system of senatorial selection preferred by our Founders and which was in place for the majority of our republic's history.

In particular, the United States Constitution in its original form said in Section 3, Clause 1 that "The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof…" It was not until the 17th Amendment, passed by Congress in 1912 and ratified in 1913, that "chosen by the Legislature" was changed to "elected by the people."

The DSCC's ad is doubly dishonest: It says that Buck holds a position which they know he doesn't hold, and they portray the position as radical even though it represents the system which was in place for 55% of the time since our Constitution was adopted. Unfortunately, the DSCC is rightly betting that few who see the ad will know this history (or that Buck doesn't support the repeal of the 17th Amendment.)

What people should -- but mostly won't -- learn from the DSCC's ad is nothing about Ken Buck and a lot about the impact of the 17th Amendment. It's not as if the small handful of (Republican) candidates for federal office who have suggested its repeal will be able to get more than a 5 second discussion on the issue from John Boehner. (OK, 5 seconds is an exaggeration since Boehner's likely response of "What planet are you from?" can be scornfully delivered in two seconds flat. I timed it myself.) But even the mention of the idea seems to scare the DSCC -- as it should, more than it should scare any other group on the planet.

The 17th Amendment is a direct attack on federalism and one of the greatest transfers of power from the states to the federal government, and particularly to Democrat senators, in our nation's history. In a moment of remarkable candor, a U.S. government website states directly that the change was pushed by "Progressive reformers." It's no wonder; they knew exactly what they were doing.

In an important paper on "The History of the Seventeenth Amendment and its Implications for Current Reform Proposals," George Mason University law professor Todd Zywicki makes some key points:

• The Senate was intended "to provide an anti-democratic role under the Constitution, an American version of the English House of Lords designed to check the democratic excesses of the House of Representatives…"

• "Appointment of Senators by state legislatures gave the states a constituent role in the national government and a means to protect themselves from laws emanating from Washington designed to subvert state sovereignty and independence."

• Following the passage of the 17th Amendment, "the 1920s showed for the first time federal intervention in traditional state functions, and the first use of federal grants to the states -- along with accompanying federal control. Moreover, the state governments have more and more been downgraded from independent policy-making bodies to mere instrumentalities of the federal government… Indeed, it is inconceivable that a Senator during the pre-Seventeenth Amendment era would vote for an 'unfunded federal mandate,' thereby requiring state legislatures to raise taxes and spend money on projects they did not devise and for which they receive no political benefit."

(You can hear a Cato Institute podcast on the topic with Todd Zywicki here.)

Even Alexander Hamilton, the leading champion among the Founders of a powerful central government, said (in Federalist 59) that while there is risk to the central government from a system in which state legislatures choose senators, a system which had direct election of senators "would doubtless have been interpreted into an entire dereliction of the federal principle; and would certainly have deprived the State governments of that absolute safeguard which they will enjoy under this provision."

The threads of the original intent -- and why Democrat senators in particular would want those threads shredded -- quickly become clear. Weakening a senator's connection to his state and putting him in a position to buy citizens' votes with other people's money -- standard operating procedure for both of today's major political parties -- erodes any incentive to protect federalism or to fight for limited, low-cost government.

Direct election of Senators turns them into slightly-glorified Representatives, people who work in a body with slightly different rules and who can wait 3 or 4 years before putting on a full-court fund-raising press before their next elections rather than House members who have to shake their tin cup for campaign funds barely 12 months after an election. It's a distinction without a difference, but a real difference is what our Founders intended for good reason.

To be sure, the repeal of the 17th Amendment would not necessarily change much. Even if not required by the federal Constitution to have popular election of senators, most states would simply implement that same policy on a state level -- as many did at the urging of Progressives prior to the amendment's passage. Furthermore, the sad history of the past several decades in which the federal government peddled its opiate of "block grants" and "highway funds" other "free" money to the now-addicted states is something that will require a rather potent budget-methadone treatment that many citizens -- and most politicians -- might not be able to handle.

But just having the discussion about repealing the 17th Amendment -- and I thank Ken Buck for bringing it up while wishing he had the courage to stick with his gut instinct -- represents a valuable service to Americans by stoking a much-needed national remedial civics lesson. When the Constitution becomes a topic for public debate, it forces Democrats and Progressives to explain why they routinely ignore, dismiss, or attack the Constitution with their ultra-expensive Nanny State policies and their faux philosophies of government such as a "living Constitution." And when our Constitution takes center stage in political discussion, particularly when it can be shown that we ignore it at our own peril, America takes a baby step toward relearning the value of our Founding documents and principles. When even Germans are telling us that "America has become too European," the civics lesson can't come a moment too soon.

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About the Author
Ross Kaminsky is a self-employed trader and investor and is a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute. He is the host of The Ross Kaminsky Show on Denver's NewsRadio 850 KOA on Saturday mornings from 6 AM to 9 AM. You can reach Ross by e-mail at rossputin(at)rossputin(dot)com.