Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Tea Party Calls for Repealing the Seventeenth Amendment

Much is mystifying about the Tea Party movement. The paranoia, racism, and anti-government extremism I can place into the larger context of right-wing lunacy that threads through American history. This I can more or less get a grip on.

What I can't understand is the seemingly innocuous constitutional amendments these people either want to rejuvenate or repeal. The 10th Amendment is the favorite of the Tea Partiers because they think they can use it to nullify any federal law they don't like. I'm sure they will believe in using the 10th Amendment precisely as long as a Democrat sits in the White House, but despite this hypocrisy they certainly have, um, interesting views on the relative power of the federal and state governments.

Even more bizarre is the attempt to overturn the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913. What is that? Direct election of Senators. Yes, the Tea Party finds you voting for your own Senator to be a threat to the Republic. Here's the text of this insidious amendment:

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.

When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.

Wow, that is a threat...

Of course, the Tea Party activists didn't think of this themselves. It comes from high-ranking right-wingers. For example, in 1997 Bush hack and torture memo author Jay Bybee wrote "Ulysses at the Mast: Democracy, Federalism, and the Sirens' Song of the Seventeenth Amendment," arguing that the 17th Amendment vastly increased federal power at the expense of the states. 

Why was the 17th Amendment passed in the first place? Direct election of Senators was core to late 19th and early 20th century reformers attempts to make government accountable to the people. During the Gilded Age, large corporations such as U.S. Steel, Standard Oil, and the big railroads would basically choose their men to be senators. They would have the candidate they wanted, go to the individual state legislatures and buy off enough politicians to get their man ratified. This outright corruption happened time and time again. The Populists made this corruption central to their platform because even though they had the numbers to force the railroads to offer better prices for shipping agricultural goods to market, they could never vote for senators who represented their views. Progressives built upon this, not quite because of concern for rural producers, but because they saw corruption as undermining the government and the ability of reformers to push through much needed changes throughout American society.

There's a certain extent of fetishizing the states as the proper space for power in America going on here, particularly by the rank and file teabagger, but among the generators of these ideas like Bybee, Karl Rove, and Dick Armey, there's a conscious dislike of how the Progressive Era undermined corporations' ability to rule America unchallenged by a strong federal government. They want corporations to buy entire state legislatures. Imagine such a situation--Boeing needs some permits to expand their operations outside of Seattle and they buy the entire Washington state legislature. BP is receiving flack for its oil spill--time to write enough checks to Louisiana legislators so that BP can get their man elected Senator! (Note: given that it's Louisiana, those checks are probably already changing hands. But those corrupt politicians can't actually name a senator BP wants).

Repealing the 17th Amendment doesn't put government back in the hands of the people--it takes it out. What this would do is place power into the hands of the corporations. Along with the Citizens United decision, it is part of a broad Republican strategy to allow corporations to rule America like they did in 1890.

Turns out that Teabagger calls to repeal the 17th Amendment might not be so popular with the American people, or even the average Republican primary voter. Say what you will about average Americans, but they do at least like the right to vote for their politicians, rather than, say, have shady state legislatures choose for them. Several Republican congressional candidates answered Teabagger surveys asking if they supported a repeal of the 17th Amendment. It hasn't gone well for those who said yes:

In Idaho, Republican Vaughn Ward is in a similar pickle. Ward, the NRCC's choice to challenge Rep. Walt Minnick (D), is currently locked in a primary fight with state Rep. Raul Labrador. As happens so often in Republican primaries these days, the candidates are doing their best to appeal to the ultra-conservative vote. (And considering that Minnick is the lone Democrat to be called a Hero by the Tea Party Express, we're talking extra tasty crispy conservative here.)

On April 30, Ward told a TV audience in Boise that he, like Labrador, favored repealing the 17th Amendment. But after the issue drew some heat in the press, Ward thought better of the idea and changed his tune.

"I do not want to take away the power of people to elect senators," Ward told the Spokesman-Review newspaper. "What I do support is amending the Constitution and adding a two-term limit for U.S. senators."

Ward said "I'm not changing position, I'm clarifying," but reporters in Idaho called it like it was. One columnist put it this way: "Um, no."

Tea Party Boise President Brendan Smythe told me Ward's new take on the 17th Amendment is a "massive flip-flop." He said that Ward's change of heart "means a lot to us" and could have an effect on Ward's chances in Idaho's May 25 primary.

"It sounds to me like he's answering to the GOP machine," Smythe said. He said that most establishment Republicans in Idaho don't support repealing the amendment and he speculated that they may have influenced Ward's decision to change his mind on the issue.

"He probably got some advice from the incumbents," Smythe told me. "[Ward's reversal] is typical party before country behavior. That's all it is."

Incidentally, the following states either rejected or never bothered to pass the 17th Amendment. Given the right-wing nature of many of these states, I can't wait for the Tea Partiers to use 10th Amendment nullification to declare the 17th Amendment null and void in these particular states!

South Carolina
Rhode Island

Finally, I just need to say that I cannot believe it is 2010 and I am writing about fights to overturn the 17th Amendment. What crazy constitutional idea will the Teabaggers come up with next, overturning the 12th Amendment, changing the way the Vice-President is selected?