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Raymond A. Smith, Ph.D. Headshot

A Senatorial Centennial: How Congress Was Reshaped 100 Years Ago This Week

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If you think that dysfunction and elitism in the U.S. Senate are now at an all-time high, then this is a good time to recall that for the first 12 decades of American history, it was often much worse.

It was on May 31, 1913 -- exactly one hundred years ago -- that the 17th Amendment was enacted to shift the election of senators from state legislatures to the voters of each state. This is a largely forgotten episode of American political history, but its effects still resonate down until today.

The original design of Congress only envisioned U.S. Representatives as directly representing the people. Members of the upper house were seen to represent the states and to give them a powerful influence on national domestic politics, and also on the ratification of international treaties. After the Civil War, Populists began calling for the Senate to be more directly representative of the people.

By the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, other problems had also crept in. State legislatures with chambers under the control of different parties sometimes could not agree on a Senate choice, leaving the seat vacant. These deadlocks were all too often broken through corruption and backroom dealing by party bosses, some of the same concerns that also led progressives to champion the introduction of primary elections.

The obstacles to reform were formidable. The usual route for enactment of a Constitutional amendment requires the support of 2/3rds of both houses of Congress and then ratification by 3/4 of the state legislatures -- in other words, some of the very entities whose prerogatives were being targeted. But Article V of the Constitution also requires that Congress "on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments." By 1910, with the reformist impulse strong throughout the country, 27 of the 31 states required to reach two-thirds had invoked their Article V right to convene a Constitutional Convention -- the closest we as a nation have come to this since 1787.

Fearing that a "runaway" convention that might seriously undermine the status quo and its entrenched interests, Congress relented and officially proposed what would go on to quickly become the 17th Amendment. As promised, the amendment eliminated the problem of Senate vacancies and also curbed corruption. But it also had other unintended effects. More Democrats were elected by the voters than had been by state legislatures, whose apportionment at the time favored Republican-leaning rural areas. The nature of American bicameralism also shifted, with Senators behaving much more like election-seeking Representatives, albeit still with longer terms and larger constituencies.

Some proponents of robust federalism have continued to view the 17th Amendment as a body blow to states' rights, one in a string of defeats that also included the Civil War, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Era. The issue of states' rights has more recently led to unlikely interest in the 17th Amendment among some Tea Partiers, who call for its repeal so that the federal government would once again be more directly restrained by the states.

More sustained has been criticism of another innovation introduced in 1913: the provision that governors may temporarily fill vacancies in Senate seats from their states. The 2008 elections highlighted this peculiar practice when governors in four states simultaneously filled the Senate seats left empty when Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Ken Salazar joined the incoming Obama administration. By late 2009, after the death of Ted Kennedy and the resignation of Mel Martinez, one in eight Americans was represented by at least one appointed Senator. And, of course, the sordid tale of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagoevich's attempt to "sell" Barack Obama's spot in the Senate calls to mind the corruption that first sparked the ire of the Progressives.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this obscure centennial, however, is the reminder that it is indeed possible to win even the most uphill battle to alter the Constitution. Proponents of reform all too often throw up their hands at the seeming near-impossibility of enacting a Constitutional amendment, whether to reform the electoral college, guarantee women's equality, balance the budget, allow naturalized citizens to become president, enact term limits, or provide voting rights for Washington, D.C. -- all of which have been the topics of thwarted amendments. But one hundred years ago, reformers found a way to remind the country that people govern the Constitution, and not the other way around.