Most people know the First Amendment to the U.S Constitution. Lately, the Second Amendment is getting a lot of play. Lawyers and the recently incarcerated know the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Everyone who raises a glass celebrates the 21st Amendment. It repealed the prohibition enacted by the 18th Amendment, the only one ever cast by the wayside.
Few know the 17th Amendment. Ratified in 1913, this addition to the Constitution established that U.S. senators are elected by popular vote. Originally, they were selected by state legislatures.
But there are those who believe the time has come for its removal, as well. They argue that repealing the amendment would return our wayward nation to the vision laid out by our Founding Fathers. And some of those proponents are under the Gold Dome.
The recent fascination with this staid amendment emerges from the Republican Party's continuing obsession with "originalism" — the concept that laws should be viewed only as they were written by those men in stuffed shirts and sweat-soaked wigs who put quill to paper and created a nation.
That we in the Internet age should comport ourselves as those in the age of the horse and buggy intended is an idea that has always percolated in conservative circles. It was brought to the forefront by former president Ronald Reagan, codified by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and is now mantra for all who claim to follow in their footsteps. In their world, the 17th Amendment wasn't a necessary tweak to our system. It was a sin great enough to cast us all from the garden of democracy.
Republicans under the Gold Dome — a group that's never shy about showing its reverence for the apostles of originalism — have set their sights on erasing this hundred-year-old stain. State Rep. Kevin Cooke, R-Carrollton, and five cohorts have sponsored House Resolution 273, which requests "the United States Congress to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution." Doing so "would help to prevent the many unfunded mandates and unconstitutional laws passed onto those states by the federal government."
Despite the bellyaching of today's proponents of the 17th's undoing, the indirect election of senators was not cast into lightning and etched into stone at the feet of the founders as they stood before the burning bush of democracy.
James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," proposed election of senators by the U.S. House of Representatives. (Take a moment to ponder how well that would work in the current chaotic Congress.) Alexander Hamilton, another Founding Father, proposed a special electoral college equivalent to England's House of Lords to select a senator. He also wanted senators to serve for life.
Even the ratification of the U.S. Constitution did not settle the matter. Amendments to alter the method of senatorial election were raised in 1828, 1829 and 1855. By the time the country reached the 20th century, corruption in statehouses had thoroughly infected the system. After Montana mining and banking magnate William Clark got caught bribing members of that state's legislature for their votes, progressive reformers again pushed for change.
The call for a new process reached such a fever pitch that more than 30 states proposed the creation of a new constitutional convention. Instead, the U.S Congress passed the 17th Amendment. It was ratified by 34 states in less than one year. And for the past century, senators have been elected in direct elections. The Republic has stood firm.
Thankfully, since HR 273 is only a resolution and all the sponsors have served less than three terms, it could easily be seen as a sop to the more fervent parts of the constituency. Yet denigration of the 17th Amendment is common these days. Aspersions have been cast by members of the U.S. House of Representatives including Georgia's own Congressman Paul Broun, R-Athens, senators including tea party favorite Richard Mourdock in Indiana, and governors including silver-tongued devil Rick Perry of Texas.
Conservative philosophy as developed by men such as Edmund Burke, an 18th century member of the House of Parliament who supported the American Revolutionary War, treasures continuity and stability. That philosophy is grounded in incremental change with respect for history and tradition.
The 17th Amendment was debated for the country's first 100 years. And it has worked for the past century. But the current claimants to the priesthood of conservatism choose to ignore all history between the then and the now. In their world, only that which was written in the beginning can define today. Genesis defines the course, Revelation the destination, and all between is vague parable and psalm.
The 17th Amendment was borne from frustration with corruption and opportunism in our statehouses. Handing the election of U.S. senators back to the current occupants of these houses, those who cannot determine how to strengthen their own lukewarm ethics laws, shows no respect for history or traditions. Such a move only honors the modern-day worship of originalism. And its proponents are living in a past that's long gone.