Strange that a U.S. senator from Nebraska would propose reversing a 107-year-old constitutional amendment that Nebraska helped pioneer to begin with.
Republican Sen. Ben Sasse included repealing the 17th Amendment, which lets voters elect senators directly, among several ideas for improving the Senate in a Wall Street Journal piece last week.
That would take us back to Article I’s original requirement that each state’s legislature elect its two U.S. senators.
“The old saying used to be that all politics is local, but today — thanks to the internet, 24/7 cable news and a cottage industry dedicated to political addition — politics is polarized and national,” Sasse wrote.
“That would change if state legislatures had direct control over who serves in the Senate.”
One wonders why senators (and House members) can’t do their jobs without getting two-thirds of each house of Congress and three-fourths of the states to force them to.
But let’s go back in time to understand why the 17th Amendment came along.
As Sasse implies, having legislatures elect their states’ senators reflected the Founding Fathers’ ideal of a true union of states.
The American people would be heard through their directly elected House members, while each state government’s views would be reflected as the Senate weighed in on federal issues.
That’s been lost, Sasse says. “Different states bring different solutions to the table, and that ought to be reflected in the Senate’s national debate.”
As it should be. But is the 17th Amendment to blame for why it isn’t?
The founders’ ideal had been foiled by the late 1800s by not only political parties but also the all-too-familiar “special interests.”
In early Nebraska, the railroads — mainly the Union Pacific and Burlington lines — reigned supreme in business affairs.
One could say, Nebraska historians have long agreed, that the early Legislature elected two types of senators: a “Union Pacific senator” and a “Burlington senator.”
Even then, Nebraska voters could express their senatorial preference at the polls. Arbor Day founder J. Sterling Morton, the state’s most prominent early Democrat, led his party’s candidates in 1882 but ran behind those for the GOP.
Even so, Morton had a good chance — due to railroad power — of winning the Senate seat.
But though he led the Legislature’s first ballot, he quit in disgust as the “contest” dragged through all of January 1883, Morton biographer James C. Olson wrote.
Back then, Lincoln in January in odd-numbered years was the opposite of a paragon of democratic or republican virtue.
Consider Olson’s description of the scene during Morton’s contest:
“Leading aspirants were ensconced in hotel suites ... Hotels and saloons reeked with the smoke of free cigars strewn with a lavish hand by the generous candidates.
“It seemed that each train brought a fresh pack of politicians, big and little, all wanting to have some part in the manufacture of a senator. The hotels were filled to overflowing.”
Nebraskans didn’t create their one-house, officially nonpartisan Legislature until a quarter-century after the 17th Amendment.
The parties have never stopped trying to worm their way into it as it is. Remember 2017, when partisan intrigues over rules wasted one-third of the Unicameral session?
Now imagine a U.S. Senate election in place of that.
Nearly four years after Morton’s experience, voters overwhelmingly backed Republican U.S. Sen. Charles Van Wyck for re-election in November 1886.
But he lost in the Legislature when his fellow partisans (and-or the railroads) took revenge for his voting record.
Van Wyck was still a senator until March 1887, though. Before his term expired, he gave the Senate’s first floor speech in favor of letting voters directly elect senators.
Nebraska’s three-time Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, pushed for direct Senate elections.
In 1896, when Bryan first ran, Nebraska became the second state to require its legislature to back the Senate popular-vote winner.
Unicameral father George W. Norris, who began his 30-year Senate career in 1912, was the last thus elected by state lawmakers before the 17th Amendment took effect.
If direct senatorial elections have proven anything, it’s that any democratic or republican system can be corrupted when elected officials forget — for power, money or both — who they’re working for.
Knowing that, is the 17th Amendment worse, or simply not as bad? We, er, vote for the latter.
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