State Sen. Howard Stephenson has taken some criticism for a bill that would provide a "soft repeal" of the 17th Amendment, which allows for the direct election of U.S. senators. Really, though, he is being entirely consistent with state history.
Utah was one of the few states that voted against ratifying that amendment. Back on Feb. 6, 1913, the vote in the Senate was 9-7 against, with two senators mysteriously disappearing from the chambers just as the vote was to be taken.
That vote, as it turns out, was wise. The 17th Amendment was passed amid a torrent of populist reforms sweeping the country at the time. The 16th Amendment, allowing for the income tax, had passed earlier that year. Other reformers were hard at work trying unsuccessfully for the direct election of federal judges and to limit the president to one six-year term. Women suffragists who, as it turned out, had what may have been the only truly noble cause of the age, were to work hard for another seven years before they were victorious.
But just because the 17th Amendment was unwise, that does not mean Stephenson's bill, SB156, is wise. The senator has made his point. It is one that many intelligent observers have made through the years. But a bill that would weaken the amendment in Utah would serve only to weaken the people of Utah.
The bill calls for the state Legislature to "direct" Utah's U.S. senators as to how they should vote on important issues. It would have legislative representatives choose Senate candidates for their respective parties. Voters would then choose from among the candidates presented to them by lawmakers.
This would disenfranchise Utah voters who now settle party rivalries through primary elections. In an attempt to once again make the Senate the body most receptive to state legislatures, it would make only Utah's two senators more receptive to their own state Legislature, which would accomplish little.
The arguments against the 17th Amendment were stated eloquently back in 1913. The Founding Fathers intended the House to be the people's body. The Senate was to be elected by state legislatures and would represent the states' interests. The president would be concerned with the whole of the nation, but even he was to be elected indirectly, through the Electoral College. As Stephenson correctly notes, removing the states from that equation has led to runaway federal spending and a host of bureaucratic rules and mandates.
Unfortunately, however, the 17th Amendment isn't going to be repealed anytime soon. A so-called soft repeal would do nothing to end the concentration of power in Washington. It would only harm Utah voters.