A perilous path for tea party and GOP?

Bill Wendt, a Tennessee tea party member, attends a convention in Gatlinburg. Revolutionary-era garb often draws attention, but supporters say what often is missed is the movement's diversity.
Bill Wendt, a Tennessee tea party member, attends a convention in Gatlinburg. Revolutionary-era garb often draws attention, but supporters say what often is missed is the movement's diversity.
Posted: June 13, 2010

Mark Greenbaum

is a freelance writer in Washington

As summer kicks campaign season into high gear, tea party victories in key Republican primaries are bringing new focus on the candidates' shared fury at the federal government and outlandish stances in areas including Social Security, the federal income tax, and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

But these views may be the tip of the iceberg, as some House and Senate candidates in Idaho, Ohio, and Utah are openly calling for the repeal of the nearly 100-year-old 17th Amendment, which guarantees the direct election of U.S. senators. The argument is that senators have become too beholden to special interests, necessitating the need for state legislatures to again choose senators as they did before the amendment was ratified in 1913.

On its face, the suggestion seems absurd, both because of the immense difficulty of amending the Constitution and because depriving Americans of the ability to elect their congressional representation would cut back at the very individual freedoms the tea party purportedly exists to support. More broadly, this push illustrates a lack of political pragmatism and a fundamental misunderstanding of national institutions within the tea party that hinder the GOP's greater electoral ambitions.

Change via constitutional amendment is not practical. Since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, the cumbersome process of passing an amendment with two-thirds of both the House and Senate and then obtaining the support of three-fourths of the states has been achieved only 17 times, 15 if one doesn't count the passage and repeal of Prohibition - ironically the only time in history that a constitutional amendment has been explicitly repealed.

Yet, even if there were an energetic national drive to return the selection of senators back to the states, passage would be impossible for reasons of pure state political self-interest. The Senate guards the prerogatives of the states that have less representation in the House, ensuring that senators from smaller states have good reason to protect the status quo. Under the Constitution, a well-populated state like Florida has 25 House members, while a sparsely populated one like Vermont has only one; but in the Senate, all states are equal with two members each.

Over the last 100 years - and even before that - senators from small states have been able to wield influence disproportionate to the size of their constituency by exploiting Congress' seniority system. For example, since 2000, senators from Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, and Utah have chaired the most powerful committees, thus controlling the disbursement of billions to their states and dictating the national agenda.

This matters in any discussion about the 17th Amendment because many of the smallest states also happen to be staunchly Republican. Were the amendment to be repealed and the Senate to be reselected from scratch, the seniority the small-state delegations have carefully built up would be erased, hurting the clout of the Midwestern, Southern, and Western states where the tea party movements are strongest. This would be particularly damaging given the inherent advantages Democrats have with the proportional representation structure in the House, where solid blue states like California, Illinois, and New York hold sway.

Of course, many conservatives would contend that the congressional spoils system should be abolished, but the dispersal of power via seniority is itself rigidly ingrained and perhaps even harder to topple.

Furthermore, there's good reason to believe that repeal would actually backfire on Republicans, as state legislatures have long been predominantly Democratic. Were state governments to begin picking senators again, Democrats would likely enjoy a perpetual majority in Washington. Indeed, currently, with Republicans unilaterally holding just eight state legislatures, a U.S. Senate appointed under pre-1913 law would be made up of well over 60 Democrats - a wider disparity than that in the current Congress.

Ultimately, a system where senators were elevated by a few dozen lawmakers instead of by millions of voters would do more to make federal leaders beholden to special interests and not less.

In November, Democrats are expected to endure deep losses as unease with the economy remains pointed. But Republicans, too, will face a major test of strength, as scores of nominees endorsed by the tea party will be on ballots across the nation. Even though most are not campaigning on opposition to the 17th Amendment, they are running on many ideas that sit outside the mainstream of public acceptance.

The Republican Party cannot sustain itself by allying with wacky policy proposals, especially ones that would, if implemented, actively undermine the GOP. That is a recipe for long-term political disaster.


E-mail Mark Greenbaum at markgreenbaum@gmail.com.

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