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The Seventeenth Amendment


The conservative dream of repealing the Seventeenth Amendment will not go away. The idea that the people could have the direct election of senators seems utterly uncontroversial to 99.9 percent of Americans. But not to the people who want to strip tens of millions of health care, among many other things. For them, their ability to control state legislatures would guarantee a permanent Republican majority and truly install the New Gilded Age.

Say “hello” to the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, the corporate-funded project to impose a top-down right-wing agenda on the states. ALEC is considering whether to adopt a new piece of “model legislation” that proposes to do away with an elected Senate.

The idea of reversing 104 years of representative democracy and returning to the bad old days when senators were chosen via backroom deals between wealthy campaign donors, corporate lobbyists, and crooked legislators, is not new. The John Birch Society peddled the proposal decades ago. But with the rise of the “Tea Party” movement, the notion moved into the conservative mainstream.

Then–Texas Governor Rick Perry argued in 2012 that the direct election of senators “took the states out of the process.” Several Republican senators apparently agree, with Utah Senator Mike Lee referring to the 17th Amendment as “a mistake” and Arizona Senator Jeff Flake saying, “I think it’s better as it reinforces the notion of federalism to have senators appointed by state legislatures.” What was once a fringe fantasy is being taken ever more seriously by conservative strategists.

Last year, ALEC published an article by a so-called “subject matter expert” arguing that the popular election of senators is “disenfranchising the States.” The article made an old-school states’ rights argument for taking the power to choose senators away from the people and giving it to the politicians who sit in state legislatures.

ALEC has yet to formally embrace the theory, but last month it circulated a “draft resolution recommending constitutional amendment restoring election of u.s. senators to the legislatures of the sovereign states.” That resolution is among the items expected to be considered at this week’s annual meeting of the influential group.

It’s unlikely this would happen, simply because of the difficulty of getting a constitutional amendment ratified. ALEC controls a lot of states, but it doesn’t control 38 states to the extent of repealing one of the nation’s core political reforms. If this happens, so many democratic norms have been rolled back that we are barely recognizable. On the other hand, it is 2017 so all manners of horrors are on the table. And to be clear, the idea of a plutocrat paying cash to state legislators for a Senate seat is the ALEC ideal, not a problem.

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