Despite it being the constitutional amendment that most directly altered the structure of the federal government, little is known about how and why the Seventeenth Amendment was enacted. Existing scholarship on why the Constitution was amended to require direct elections for US. Senators, rather than having them appointed by state legislatures, has troubled accounting for two major puzzles. Why were state legislatures eager to give away the power to choose Senators? And why was there virtually no discussion of federalism during debates over removing a key constitutional protection for states governments?
This Article offers a theory that can provide an answer to both of these questions. Support for direct elections was, at least in part, a result of the rise of ideologically coherent, national political parties. The rise of truly national parties meant that state legislative elections increasingly turned on national issues, as voters used these elections as means to select Senators. State politicians and interest groups supported direct elections as a way of separating national and state politics. Advocates of repealing the Seventeenth Amendment claim the mantle of federalism, but repeal would reduce the benefits of federalism, making state legislatures into something akin to electoral colleges for U.S. Senators.
While important in its own right, the history of the Seventeenth Amendment can also teach us a great deal about how federalism functions in eras of strong national political parties. First, national political parties have not generally served as "political safeguards of federalism," but instead have made state politics turn on national issues. Second, despite the Seventeenth Amendment, state elections still largely turn on national politics. Although state issues are sometimes important, the most important factor in state legislative elections is the popularity of the President. To achieve the benefits for state democracy sought by supporters of the Seventeenth Amendment, election law reform would be more effective than structural constitutional changes.
Date of Authorship for this Version
Schleicher, David, "The Seventeenth Amendment and Federalism in an Age of National Political Parties" (2014). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 4962.