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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

A Really Bad Idea


Tea Partiers Want to Do Away With Direct Election of Senators? Come on… The fellow to the left should be the poster boy for why repealing the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a really, really nutty idea.

William Andrews Clark was one of the original robber barons of the American West, a Montana Copper King, a genuine scoundrel and a United States Senator thanks to the money he spent buying a few state legislators and his ticket into the world’s greatest deliberative body.

Now – brace yourselves – the Tea Party movement is advocating, you can’t make this stuff up, doing away with direct election of U.S. Senators. Even more off the wall, the two top candidates for the GOP nomination for Congress in Idaho’s First Congressional district have endorsed the idea as has Idaho’s governor. These folks must be drinking something stronger than tea.

William Edgar Borah, one of the greatest United States Senators, lead the charge in the early 1900’s to amend the Constitution to take away from state legislators the power to elect United States Senators. Borah was a progressive – that would be a dirty word for many Tea Partiers – who believed that the power to make Senators ought to reside with the people, not a tiny group of elected officials (legislators) subject to the influence and money of special interests, raw politics, deal making and close door decision making. He fought for the amendment for years before it was finally passed.

Now, apparently harboring the misguided notion that letting legislators elect U.S. Senators would somehow strengthen states rights, the Tea Party movement is all over repealing Borah’s historic handiwork.

Borah’s biographer Marian McKenna writes this about the Idahoan’s effort to put the American people in charge of deciding who serves in the U.S. Senate.

“The feeble and corrupt, he wrote,will always be found in personal government, but in a true democracy neither incompetence nor dishonesty will long remain unexposed. ‘What judgment is so swift, so sure and so remorseless as the judgment of the American people?'” Indeed.

The founders wrote the state legislature election process into the Constitution because they wanted to ensure one house of the national legislature would be dominated by an elite. The House of Representatives would be for the common people, the Senate for the new American nobility. The provision stayed in the Constitution for so long, in part, because southerners worried that African-Americans would influence the popular vote for members of the Senate.

Borah disliked the lack of direct election for the same reason William Andrews Clark loved the idea. Borah knew he could stand a chance getting elected if the people were passing judgment, if a bunch of small-time pols in the legislature did the selecting they would often be subject to deals, pressure and money. Clark used all three to seal – or steal – his election in Montana at the turn of the 20th Century.

Do candidates like those in Idaho who have endorsed this idea really think we ought to disenfranchise the people and let a simple majority of the 105 members of the Idaho Legislature elect our U.S. Senators? If they do, they haven’t read any history. They need to.

Can you imagine the wheeling and dealing in the state legislature around a U.S. Senate seat? I’ll vote for your guy if you support the appropriation for my community college? You want your bill to see the light of day, better support my guy for the Senate?

The state legislature – any state legislature – is capable of more than enough mischief, thank you, without trusting them to elect our U.S. Senators. I really hope the otherwise serious people who are supporting this idea are merely guilty of pandering to the movement of the moment. If they are serious, the tea they’re drinking has fermented.

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