How the Passage of the 17th Amendment Broke Congress

How the Passage of the 17th Amendment Broke Congress
  • The Founders were distrustful of central power
  • The Senate was meant to be a check and balance on the House of Representatives
  • The 17th Amendment turned the Senate a glorified House of Representatives
  • The federal government should be accountable to the states, as originally intended, but the states are now effectively accountable to the federal government

Congress is broken and America is paying the cost, literally! When the Articles of Confederation were ratified in 1781, the Founding Fathers had several primary concerns. Two of them were:

  1. Power is not absolute — it should be shared and balanced.
  2. The states were to hold power to prevent a monarch, or dictator, from gaining power and control over a central government.

The Founders, and the entire new nation, were highly distrustful of central power for good reason. They had fought a war and won independence from King George III because of his “long train of abuses” as outlined in the Declaration of Independence.

There was no nation, there were 13 independent “nations” (colonies) with a shared history and interests.

From the time independence was achieved from England and up until the Civil War, each state was considered an individual country that united for the purpose of foreign diplomacy, war, and taxation. As such, the federal government was accountable to the states.

Yet, the Articles of Confederation was an extremely weak document and failed for several reasons. Among them were:

  1. The new country owed money and was having a difficult time paying it back without the ability to impose and collect taxes.
  2. Each state operated independently from one another, and each had its own form of currencies.
  3. The states conducted their own foreign policy, creating confusion with friendly nations.
  4. The federal government needed the permission of the states to protect against aggressive foreign intervention or protect the western frontier — and the states were slow in responding if it didn’t directly affect them.

These issues, among others, led to a new Constitutional Convention in 1787 to consider proposals to solve the problems.

Why Was the Senate Formed, and Why Was It Important?

When the Constitution was ratified in 1788, it had only one powerful means for the states to have a say in the new centralized, powerful federal government.

The Constitution originally stated that two Senators were to be appointed by the state legislatures and that each state would have equal representation for a 6-year term. The Senate’s role was to serve as a check and balance on the more ruly House of Representatives and ensure the states had representation in the federal government.

The Senate and Congress Becomes Dysfunctional

By the late nineteenth century, state legislatures were having their own internal issues. In some instances, partisanship and bickering meant they couldn’t agree on candidates. This could last for a few weeks to as long as a few years. In other instances, special interest groups created chaos in state legislatures and rendered them unable to pick a nominee to the Senate.

Senate seats were left empty for protracted periods of time, and it was not uncommon that the Senate could not get a quorum. Therefore, bills were not voted on, and the nation’s business came to a halt.

This led to the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913 as state legislatures proved to be incapable of ensuring they were represented in Congress.

The 17th Amendment and Its Challenges

The 17th Amendment changed only one thing, functionally, for the Senate. But this change forever altered the ability of the Senate to serve as a check and balance on the House in the way the founders originally conceived. After the passage of the amendment, Senators were elected rather than appointed by state legislatures.

What the Senate effectively became was a glorified House of Representatives, leaving the states without any power in the federal government.

Now political parties have the power instead of the states. So long as a political party controls both the House and Senate, the opposition party is helpless to stop the majority party’s agenda without a presidential veto.

In addition, because the states no longer have representation in Congress, they are helpless to combat unfunded mandates or legislation passed into law that might violate the 10th Amendment (which states all powers not explicitly stated in the Constitution go to the states) without using the courts.

The 17th Amendment is responsible for the erosion of liberties, checks and balances, and forces states to use the courts as their only means of redress.

The 17th Amendment Broke Congress and the Nation

While this may seem insignificant, it’s not. Culturally, citizens look less and less to each other to help solve problems and meet needs. More and more, citizens look to the federal government instead of their states.

Alexander Hamilton once said:

“While the constitution continues to be read, and its principles known, the states, must, by every, rational man, be considered as essential component parts of the union; and therefore the idea of sacrificing the former to the latter is totally inadmissible.”

Sacrificing the states to the union started with the 17th Amendment. Since its ratification, Congress has become more partisan and polarized. It’s broken, and it’s the states that have paid the price. Although the federal government was intended to be accountable to the states, the states have become accountable to the federal government.

The 17th Amendment made sense when it was ratified because of the extreme circumstances at the time. But, does it still? Congress is more partisan than ever, and we’ve inherited a highly dysfunctional national government without the states to act as a rudder to guide the nation as the founders intended.

By Don Purdum, Freelance Contributor

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