The venerable Constitution of The United States was written by truly inspired men who looked beyond themselves to create a guiding document for the then thirteen colonies. In its original form, these states were granted all powers not explicitly listed therein through the enumerated powers clause of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments of the Bill of Rights.
The structure of the three branches was crafted to prevent tyranny and allow the states to be free from excessive governmental power by providing the checks and balances which we know are the hallmark of this American experiment of self-governance. But, something has gone wrong with government. We only have to look at approval ratings to see that. Even though many do not pay attention to the day to day operations of our elected officials in Washington, their actions – and even lack of action – has caused more pain and suffering in the past century than the founders could ever imagine. Why did they not see this current fracturing of the country? We’re they really not so gifted in their deliberations? I would venture that they were indeed gifted and forthright in what they perceived as the best way to structure the three branches. Changes have been made since then that at the time seemed reasonable but were really a poison pill. One that would eventually lead to the problems we face today. You might wonder the purpose of two houses of congress and what that was intended to accomplish.
If you also think so, please consider the following: the framers knew that the parliamentary system used in the British system was flawed so they set about to construct a better system. When I studied this aspect in elementary school, I wondered why did we need two houses that were essentially the same? They are indeed the same today, but the founders and others who influenced the debate knew that to simply copy the British system would also lead to internal corruption, power grabs, backroom deals and seats granted based on who you knew or who you bought off. The logic of the Senate selection process was indeed sterling but we no longer have that logic in control of government and can see the disastrous results in the perpetual gridlock in Washington today.
The House of Representatives and the Senate were both created to eliminate the problems found in the British system by having representatives chosen by the people of each region in the state. A popularity contest if you will. Nothing wrong with that because we need to have someone who is from our area to be able to speak with directly and to know that they face the same issues we do – be it local flooding or a group of people or businesses that might dominate the area by graft or force.
The Senate on the other hand was intended to be a more deliberative body and as such, they needed to be insulated from the more local issues and see how those effected the states and if there was a need for the federal government to intervene in those local issues. If the Senate approved a measure from the house of representatives that did rise to the level of national importance, then the government should act to correct the problem. The Senate was described as deliberative body and as such the members served as statesmen (where the term gained its current meaning) being our ambassadors to the Federal government.
The Senators were to be selected in a unique way – by selection of each state’s legislature through whatever way the state decided to use. Many had settled on a popular vote or use of the same number of votes in the statehouse as found in the Congressional House of Representatives – a ‘super-committee’ of sorts. These legislatures were even more beholden to the people in this regard; if I or my neighbor were selected by vote to state office, we would really feel the pain if we chose to pass laws against the wishes of our constituents – usually families and friends as was so often the case in many states in colonial times. By serving in that capacity, we would also have the opportunity to meet and work with other leaders from other regions of our state. In doing so, we would learn very quickly who were the doers and who were the slackers. One other change that was made at the same time was to reduce the influence of landholders by lessening their vote. They had a larger representation compared to the urban centers by a 200 to 1 margin. Though that may not seem fair, but where is the fairness in having property owners pay for social programs that have little or no benefit to them? These landowners are often farmers and others who have put long hours into owning these large areas of land. Should their property be used as collateral for well-intended but oftentimes misdirected spending? No, indeed. This goes against all that we know to be the best use of our God given rights including the right to keep the fruits of our labors without others taking as they wish.
If after having been voted into office, we were then also to pick two people to represent the state in Washington, we would definitely incur the wrath of our neighbors – who we worked and worshiped with – if our selection was not a good choice. We would naturally be lobbied by those same people to select a better if not the best person to represent the state. This was seen by many as a nod to the aristocracy in many European capitals but was instead a carefully crafted safety valve to keep government from running roughshod over the states. By letting me and my neighbors choose from the best of the best, knowing that I had worked alongside them in either local issues or even in state office, the people would be assured that the federal government could not overreach or step into states and demand things be done a specific way. All the states that sent representatives to the continental congress knew that this was a compromise but one that should and could preserve states rights for the foreseeable future. To make sure that the federal beast they had created stayed on its leash, several states would not sign onto the document unless and until the Bill of Rights were added. By adding and including them – but as amendments, the founders sought compromise so that the fledgling American Dream would become reality.
All of this changed as many in power saw a way to increase their power and the money that flows through Washington DC by a change to the Constitution in the form of the 17th Amendment. This change caused a short-circuit in the checks and balances long regarded as essential to self-governance.
Many gifted orators including William Jennings Bryan spoke in favor of the change as shown below:
The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, (chosen by the Legislature thereof,) (The preceding words in parentheses superseded by 17th Amendment, section 1.) for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.
One may ask as I did back in seventh grade, why are representatives elected to two-year terms and Senators to six? The reasoning was to insulate the Senate from rash popular legislation, by not having to content with re-election (or re-selection in this case). We have seen in recent times the way that a popular ideal can spread but be quickly replaced by the next greatest all-improved, hippest, baddest, trend that can capture the public’s fancy. Anyone want to buy a leisure suit?
The effect has been to undermine the state’s role in government and replace it with this sort of rush to produce – something / anything – to look like progress is being made. In looking back at the way all of this has played out, it can be seen that the decision to amend the constitution was not well thought out and through the years the very things that the change sought to eliminate (a straw man if you will) are the very things the change and resultant hasty decisions prove that there are unintended consequences to all things that are rushed into place with little or no regard other than that it sounds good.
In their appeal to the populist sentiment of the times, the proponents said that the proposal they sought would reduce corruption and make it so that the deadlock experienced in the Senate would be eliminated. However, these were and still are straw man arguments as the corruption charge shows that only 10 elections in the 100 or so years before were ever even brought up to the level of needed to be overturned. The gridlock issue? We only have to look at the current situation in Washington to see that changing selection by the states to the people in a popular vote have had little or no effect whatsoever.
Instead, the power that was held by state legislatures has been replaced by special interest groups and the voice of the people of each state is now silenced. The special interest groups – from the AARP and NRA to the EPA and HSA plus all the other alphabet soup groups – have more control over our lives than our elected representatives decisions ever could.
Another unintended consequence was the reduction of a vast number of state and regional political parties into the current two party rule we live under today. Popular ideas spring up all the time but are many times quashed because of the lack of national support for the ideas these regional groups have to offer. The current Democratic and Republican parties are both parties that ha their roots in small regional factions that were the source of the gridlock complaint at the turn of the last century. Many in government saw that the only way for them to gain more power over the people and thus their money was to be able to consolidate – and then eliminate – all of these smaller groups. I know that there are many who feel that there is little to no difference between the donkey and the elephant groups as their grip on power once obtained does not want to release their hold on the power and the purse strings found in Washington.
These are not small issues and were though out many years ago in a small hall in Philadelphia. The founders knew both maxims “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and that the governance by the people will only stand so long as free men (and women) are able and willing to take time out from their lives and serve but return to their lives when service is done. The citizen statesman was one idea that has been lost but can still be reclaimed. Washington, the man, knew and lived out these ideals by refusing to be elected President for life.
“Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”
“Delay is preferable to error.”
“I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.“
“My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government. ”
– Thomas Jefferson
That the founders and authors knew of the problems inherent with many forms of governance is without question yet today many still think that the document is an anachronism best relegated to the ash-heap of history. Yet, Washington stated plainly that the document should not be frozen in amber – it is a living breathing constitution that we as free people can change if and when the need arises. However the need for change can and must not be subject to the whim and folly of those who wish to further their own agenda. It must be deliberated and molded to produce a workable end result that will address the problems in our modern age and be suitable to serve those generations to follow. If at that point in time our progeny wish to modify and alter it, fine. That is what the founders hoped would occur. But to discard the whole system – as many in the halls of government wish – will not serve anyone except themselves. To replace portions or add amendments is not something without merit. Some changes are at odds with the wishes and desires of the majority of men and women who live work and die under its foundation of law. Elimination of slavery, making sure that all citizens are allowed to vote,and the income tax were all addition to our legal system by the amendment process. These changes show that the process does work. The issue of prohibition and its subsequent repeal show that changes that run contrary to the wishes of the people can also be discarded as planned by the founders.
The 17th amendment shows that even with due diligence and deliberation the best of intentions can have serious unintended consequences. It’s time to repeal this ill-suited amendment and get the power out of Washington DC and back to our neighborhoods and the regions that live under the ever increasing shadow of a growing beast that will take all we have and still not be satisfied.