Following the disastrous failure of the Republican Party to fulfill any of its promises and come anywhere close to a repeal of Obamacare, former Governor Mike Huckabee is calling for a repeal of the 17th Amendment, in the hope that returning to a form of government closer to what the founders envisioned would enable politicians to better do their jobs. Conservative Review Editor-in-Chief Mark Levin has also called for its repeal in his 2014 book “The Liberty Amendments.” But while most Americans are pretty familiar with the First and Second Amendments in the Bill of Rights, once you get into double digits the average level of civics knowledge gets a little hazy. So, what is the 17th Amendment, and what would its repeal actually accomplish?
First, a little history. In the main body of the Constitution, you’ll notice that the procedures for electing senators are a little different from what we have today. Article 1 states that while the House of Representatives is elected by the people via popular vote, each state’s two senators are to be chosen by the state legislatures, not the people. The 17th Amendment changed this system, allowing for the direct election of senators.
Today, the idea of repealing direct popular vote may sound crazy and undemocratic. We hear constantly that the United States is a democracy where the will of the people is upheld by elected representatives, and anything that puts distance between public opinion and lawmaking is the product of elitism and a desire to subvert the very democracy on which our country was founded. It’s the same populist urge that rails against the electoral college every time the result differs from the popular vote, as in the elections of George W. Bush and Donald Trump. It was this urge that led to the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913.
In spite of the rhetoric about democracy, however, the founders never intended America to be a pure democracy and in fact took careful steps to prevent it from becoming one. Pure democracy allows the bare majority of the people to decide how the minority ought to live. If 51 percent of the people want something, there’s nothing the 49 percent can do about it. The founders worried about this “tyranny of the majority” and sought to protect minority rights through the Constitution and a system of lawmaking designed to be deliberate and not overly subject to the ever-changing wind of popular whim.
Thus, they created the House of Representatives to be nimble and responsive to the people, but designed the Senate to be a slower-moving counterpart that was shielded, to a certain extent, from raw populism. By allowing state legislatures to elect senators, the founders sought to preserve the rights of individual states against the federal government and to prevent the House of Representative from making hasty, ill-considered decisions. The 17th Amendment effectively eliminated the difference between the House and Senate, making both subject to popular opinion.
Recognizing these intentions, many conservatives, libertarians, and constitutionalists argue that the repeal of the 17th Amendment would improve the country’s governance, giving states more leverage against federal power and preventing popular but unwise laws from being passed.
Still, given the fights that are still out there to be fought — tax reform, surveillance reform, licensing reform, protecting due process, ending the War on Drugs, reducing foreign interventionism, and the ever-elusive health care reform, all things that are actively perpetuating pain and injustice on the American citizens on a day-to-day basis — repealing the 17th Amendment seems like a lower-priority hill to die on. But once we fix all those other problems, I’ll be glad to stand on it, shoulder to shoulder with Mark Levin and Mike Huckabee.