Too Much Democracy?

Zell Miller has come out of left field with a call for returning to our roots:

Miller, who is retiring in January, was first appointed to his post in 2000 after the death of Paul Coverdell. He said Wednesday that rescinding the 17th Amendment, which declared that senators should be elected, would increase the power of state governments and reduce the influence of Washington special interests.

“The individuals are not so much at fault as the rotten and decaying foundation of what is no longer a republic,” Miller said on the Senate floor. “It is the system that stinks. And it’s only going to get worse because that perfect balance our brilliant Founding Fathers put in place in 1787 no longer exists.”

The Constitution called for voters to directly elect members to the U.S. House but empowered state legislatures to pick senators. The aim was to create a bicameral Congress that sought to balance not only the influence of small and large states but also the influence of state and federal governments.

Miller said that balance was destroyed in 1913 with the ratification of the 17th Amendment. He has introduced a resolution, which he acknowledges has no chance of passage, to repeal the 17th Amendment and again let state legislatures pick senators.

Atrios says this is a “right wing idea that keeps getting batted around.” Oliver Willis sees it as part of a larger anti-democratic movement on the Right. I’m not sure who else is calling for this, to be honest.

I’d be interested in reading/hearing a longer version of Miller’s argument to see if it has any merit. From this short story, it’s unclear to me what problem he’s trying to solve. Federalism is certainly eroding as an institution, a phenomenon about which I have mixed reaction, but it’s not obvious to me how appointing Senators would change that. Power has shifted from state legislators to their constituents but Senators still represent their states. The legislature is still bicameral and the Houses are quite distinct. With the exception of the tiny states that have only one at-large Representative, the different electoral process tends to bring rather different people to each body. House members tend to be much more ideological than their Senate counterparts, owing both to the fact that the former must appeal to a much narrower constituency and because of the need for for more collegiality in the upper House.

If the argument is that appointed Senators would be less likely to be influenced by lobbyists and “special interests,” I doubt that it would work out that way. For one thing, most of the studies I’ve seen show that lobbying is effective only at the margins. By and large, groups target politicians that are already sympathetic by virtue of ideology and/or constituency. It is true that appointed Senators could presumably devote more time to their duties given that they’d not have to spend as much time campaigning or fundraising. The trade-offs would be even more lobbying at the state level to influence the appointment process and an even greater tendency for incumbents to remain in office.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dean Esmay says:

    James: while I quite agree that lobbying and special interest money is hugely overblown in its importance, I would like to see a list of any particular studies you’ve seen, to see how well it matches my sources, none of which are primary.

    The whole “end direct election of Senators” is hardly a massive movement from what I’ve seen. I suppose it’s conservative in a way, and very mildly undemocratic, just as the Senate itself is mildly undemocratic. Still, it would be elected state legislatures and governors making the choices, so it’s hardly a totalitarian idea.

    I doubt that this would have much effect on limiting special interest influence. And I’m not sure ending special interest influence is good anyway. But assuming that it is…. state legislatures and governors will make their Senate choices based on special interests right?

    On the flip side, fewer Senators would be able to stay in Washington for 3, 4, 5 or more terms like they so often do now.

    Really it’s a meaningless game. Such an idea would need massive popular support to get enough Senators to go along with ratifying the requisite amendment, and I just don’t see the massive voter urge for no longer electing Senators anywhere on the horizon, correct me if I’m wrong….

  2. Moe Lane says:

    Speaking as one of those far-out wackos* advocating this, the (very, very) short version is that revoking the 17th would give the State legislatures more control over federal legislation… including, say, appropriations bills. It’d also make the national political parties a bit less powerful, which would be frankly a plus.


    *I have no idea what Atrios or Oliver said – my job has fairly ferocious webblocking software – but I’ve been called worse in the past for having this opinion. 🙂

  3. RicK DeMent says:

    Oh you could split the difference, one appointed one elected.

  4. Dodd says:

    I think it a fairly good idea for all the reasons stated plus this one: It would make state-level elections important again. At present, people don’t pay all that much attention to their state representation, in part because DC has become more important than the state capitol. That wasn’t what the Founders intended.

    The purpose of the Senate was always that it would be a slower, more deliberative body with the nation’s long-term interests – not members’ re-election – at heart as a counterbalance to to rowdier, more-connected-to-the-People House. Atrios can call it a “right-wing idea” and think that serves as a rebuttal but I submit that investing the People’s choice of their state level representation with more importance is hardly “anti-Democratic.” At worst it’s a wash.

  5. Gerry Owen says:

    Zell Miller is right. In the original constitutional scheme of things, the House was elected every two years to reflect the shifting will of the people- however, the Senate was designed for continuity (only 1/3 every two years) and for protection of the interests of the States. Since removing the State legislatures from the Constitutional Checks and Balances, The Federal Govt has usurped more and more power and money, mostly as a result of Senators catering to the masses by playing the issue of the day, rather than concentrating on being the caretakers of the system as a whole.

  6. Brett says:

    Any reference to a “perfect balance” of the constitution of 1787 is also, by definition, an attack on the reconstruction amendments, which most certainly altered the 1787 design, and for the better!

  7. McGehee says:

    I think Brett takes it a little far. There is virtually no link between the 17th Amendment and the Reconstruction amendments. The 17th was enacted during the Progressive reform era, which was mostly directed toward “opening up” government. They believed that direct election of Senators would reduce special interest influence over the Senate.

    Like most attempts to eliminate special interest influence, it hasn’t exactly been a rousing success.

    But linking the idea of repealing the 17th to the days of slavery — that’s a bit much.

  8. Cris says: