clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

States' rights battle was lost a long time ago

All the "message" bills floating around the state Legislature this year seem to be screaming only one real message: Get your nose out of states' rights, Washington!

Unfortunately, all the screaming in the world isn't going to change anything. Not really. The pendulum of Washington's concerns for the states may swing a bit more to the right again, but only for awhile.

The truth is, this fight was lost on May 31, 1913. That was the day Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, a fire-breathing populist, signed a proclamation declaring the 17th Amendment to the Constitution duly ratified. Now, the battle can't be won unless that amendment is repealed, and that isn't going to happen any time soon.

Bryan believed that power, corruption and special interests were standing in the way of average people being heard in Washington. (Does any of this sound familiar?) He wanted U.S. senators to be elected by the people, and not by state legislatures, which is how the Founding Fathers had designed it.

The 17th Amendment accomplished this change. It remains the only structural deviation from the system of government set up by the Founders, and it has had disastrous consequences.

Supporters of the amendment believed it would end the power of special interests and the rising costs of acquiring a Senate seat. Party leaders held a lot of power over Senate appointments, which generally were made by the party that controlled the Legislature. People running for the Legislature were chosen as much for which Senate candidate they supported as for their own political positions.

Ninety-seven years have passed, and I don't need to rehearse to you what has happened to the influence of special interests over the Senate, or to the cost of running for that job.

Nor, with a special Senate election in Massachusetts narrowly averting passage of a massive health care reform bill, do I need to instruct you on how much power average citizens feel in Washington these days.

But rather than assuming the change in how we choose senators has been a wash, one thing must be noted. The Senate no longer represents the interests of the states.

Maybe by 1913 the Senate appeared to some people to represent party interests more than state interests, but it's doubtful a Senate selected by state legislatures would have been as eager to impose rules and unfunded state mandates through the last 97 years if the legislatures objected.

I've been around long enough to have seen lots of hand-wringing about states' rights. It seemed to reach a peak in the mid-1990s as Washington tried to pass health care reform. And now that same issue has gotten the movement going again.

Utah lawmakers are considering a bill, HB67, that would require any federal health care mandate, such as requiring all people to obtain health insurance, to be passed by the state Legislature and signed by the governor before taking effect.

A lot of other states are considering similar laws. In Virginia, the state Senate on Monday passed a bill that would make it illegal to require people to buy health insurance. The odd thing about that is the Virginia Senate is controlled by Democrats.

According to The Associated Press, 34 states have such bills pending this year. "I think the alarm bell has been rung," the AP quoted Clint Bolick, who is the constitutional litigation director at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix. "They kind of have a life of their own at this point. So while some of the pressure may be off, I think that this movement has legs."

Forgive me for being skeptical. As just as this cause is, the battle was lost on that day back in 1913.

Popular opposition may indeed turn back health insurance mandates. But states will never regain the status they once had in Washington.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: Visit his blog at