Sen. Ben Sasse wants to end the direct election of senators

Another Republican idea to limit the franchise.

Cosmopolitann cover of the series "The Treason of the Senate" in 1906.

I was unaware, until my friend Thomas Geoghegan mentioned it in a new piece for The Baffler, that there exists (Tom’s words) “an eccentric far-right set of Americans who keep calling for” repeal of the 17th amendment. The 17th amendment is the one that provides for the direct election of senators. Before its ratification in 1913, senators were chosen by state legislatures. As Geoghegan notes, “the real era of Dark Money” was the Gilded Age, when state legislatures were bought and sold by the railroads. Consequently, the people those state legislatures selected to serve in the Senate were bought and sold, too.

For a taste of what Senate life was like before the 17th amendment was adopted, here’s a snippet from David Graham Phillips’s muckraking Feb. 1906 article, “The Treason of the Senate,” which ran in Cosmopolitan (this was well before Helen Gurley Brown turned Cosmo into a periodical about orgasms). In this, the first of a nine-part series, Phillips wrote about Sen. Nelson Aldrich (R.-R.I.), the all-powerful Finance Committee chairman:

It began in a street railway company of Providence in which Aldrich, president of the Providence council and afterwards member of the legislature, acquired an interest. The sugar trust’s [John E.] Searles put in a million and a half shortly after the sugar trust got its license to loot through Aldrich at Washington; the legislature passed the necessary laws and gave the necessary franchises; Senator Steve Elkins [(R.-W. Va.)] and his crowd were invited in; more legislation; more franchises, more stocks and bonds, the right to loot the people of the state in perpetuity. Yes, Aldrich is rich, enormously rich, and his mind is wholly free for the schemes he plots and executes at Washington.

If you want more, Aldrich’s great-grandson Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr. does an excellent job filleting the old boy in the opening chapter of his 1988 book, Old Money: The Mythology of Wealth in America (“My Founding Father”).

So who is this “eccentric far-right set of Americans” who want to repeal the 17th amendment? Tea Partiers, mostly, assuming any are still around. (Most of them morphed into Trumpies.) Repealing direct election for senators was a big agenda item for the Tea Party a decade ago—odd for a movement that fashioned itself populist, but there you are. The repeal cult ensnared one former presidential candidate (Mike Huckabee) and one still-sitting senator (Mike Lee). Speaking before the American Legislative Exchange Council in 2013, Sen. Ted Cruz sounded like he was a repeal buff too, though he didn’t come out and say so:

You look at the 17th amendment. Once you guys [gestures to state legislators in audience] stopped pickin’ us, everything went downhill after that. [Applause.] Prior to the 17th amendment the state legislatures’ ability and authority to select senators was a powerful check on the federal government coming and intruding into the prerogatives of the states. Because if you have the ability to hire and fire me, I’m a lot less likely to break into your house and steal your television. So there’s no doubt that was a major step towards the explosion of federal power and the undermining of the authority in the states and at the local level.

Lee more straightforwardly advocated repeal, possibly because, as David Firestone noted in a 2010 New York Times piece, Lee’s home state of Utah was the only one that declined to ratify the 17th amendment, and “seems to have been fuming at the loss of its power” ever since.

Possibly because the idea is so blatantly anti-democratic, we haven’t heard a lot lately about repealing the 17th amendment. Or rather, we hadn’t until now. Sen. Ben Sasse (former Tea Party favorite, former Never Trumper, now somewhere in between ) put repeal back on the table in a Sept. 8 Wall Street Journal op-ed proposing various ways to restore the Senate to its presumed former glory:

Repeal the 17th Amendment. Ratified in 1912 [sic.], it replaced the appointment of senators by state legislatures with direct election. Different states bring different solutions to the table, and that ought to be reflected in the Senate’s national debate. 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 addiction—politics is polarized and national. That would change if state legislatures had direct control over who serves in the Senate.

The most obvious objection is that if state legislatures had direct control over who served in the Senate, then voters would have no control at all over a legislative chamber that’s already unrepresentative in various ways delineated by Geoghegan in his piece. (I wrote a similar piece twenty years ago, inspired partly by Geoghegan’s prior writings on the subject.)

One thing that hasn’t changed since David Graham Phillips’s day is that state legislatures remain very corrupt—much more so than the U.S. Congress. One thing that has changed is the number of potential David Graham Phillipses keeping a wary eye on state legislatures. The number and quality of statehouse reporters have dwindled with the severe financial decline of regional newspapers. There has, quite possibly, never been a better time to be a state legislator who’s on the take. Even if one could reconcile oneself to allowing the U.S. government to become less democratic, that would be a big problem. (Also, why would we want the Senate to be less “national”?)

If Sasse’s timing is unfortunate, it’s also unsurprising. The Republican Party has gotten bolder, under Trump, in seeking to limit the franchise as a strategy to extend power while demographic trends erode its base. The president proposed delaying the election, then suggested it would be wiser not to have an election at all. Now Sasse is suggesting that certain elections (i.e., those for the Senate) should be eliminated in the future. Repeal of the 17th amendment is probably too pointy-headed an idea for Trump to get excited about, but I wouldn’t rule out entirely his jumping to the head of this parade.