News and Tribune

January 3, 2013

SMITH: The 17th Amendment’s role on states’ rights

Guest columnist

— During the most recent election season, you may have heard discussion about the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and how it relates to the election of U.S. senators. I thought it would be prudent to explain exactly what this controversy is about and why it is significant.

The 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, requires U.S. senators to be elected by popular vote, just the same as members of the U.S. House of Representatives. But this hasn’t always been the case. In the original U.S. Constitution, the Founding Fathers provided that U.S. representatives would be elected by popular vote, while U.S. senators would be elected by state legislatures. This provision was laid out in Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution, and was intended to ensure that the states had representation within the federal government. The idea was that the House of Representatives worked on behalf of the people, and the Senate on behalf of the states. These two bodies would act as a means of checks and balances not only on each other, but between the federal government and the states.

The three branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial — established by the Founders set up a delicate yet incredibly crucial system of check and balances to ensure no branch gained more power than the others. The Founders set up a similar system between the federal government and the states. This balanced federalism is the framework that our system of government is built on, and it highlights the importance of states’ rights alongside a capable federal government.

Since even before the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, there have been fundamental disagreements among Americans on how much power the federal government should have. Those disagreements continue today.

In the more than two centuries since its founding, our federal government has only grown in scope and power. I agree with those who argue that the ratification of the 17th amendment tipped the scales toward the federal government and away from the states in a very significant way. The amendment nullified the original intent of the Constitution, taking away from state officials the ability to choose their two senators and opening it up to a state-wide election.

Upon first glance, this may seem like a move toward greater democracy. On the contrary, it’s a move in the opposite direction. The 17th Amendment completely removes state governments from the federal legislative process, including the approval of federal legislation, executive appointments, ratification of international treaties and impeachments. Ultimately, the 17th Amendment strengthens the federal government because the states can no longer hold Congress accountable in a concrete way. Since that day, Congress has been able to push through policies that take power away from the states without the say or approval of the affected state governments.

When the Framers wrote our Constitution, they envisioned a Congress that would share power with the state legislatures. Today, Congress often acts as if it is above the states. Unfortunately, a push back on the power of our federal government and a repeal of the 17th Amendment would be an incredibly difficult process. The Constitution spells out multiple ways to pass amendments, but all require the approval of three-fourths of the states.

Though perhaps a change is unlikely, I believe a discussion about the 17th Amendment’s impact on federalism is one we ought to have. I encourage all my constituents to share their thoughts with me at or 1-800-382-9467.

— State Sen. Jim Smith, R-Charlestown, represents District 45 in Indiana.