Massive Electoral Districts Corrupt the Senate
Senatorial candidates raise over a billion dollars annually to fund their spectacularly expensive campaigns. If we want to overcome Special Interest domination of the U.S. Senate, there is only one solution: Repeal and replace the Seventeenth Amendment.
As demonstrated by Thirty-Thousand.org, reducing the size of our congressional districts (through representational enlargement) would overcome Special Interest domination of our House of Representatives. However, given that the senatorial districts are statewide, the question then becomes: How could the Senate be similarly liberated?
This commentary does not present the usual arguments for repealing the Seventeenth Amendment, the gist of which is that it would limit federal power by reinstituting the structure of federalism devised by the founders, thereby returning some power to the states and restoring liberty to the citizenry.* Whereas those arguments may be too abstract for many to readily comprehend, it is easy to understand why its repeal would end Special Interest dominion over the Senate. (Though the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment is outside of Thirty-Thousand.org’s core mission, it is certainly a relevant topic.)
The essential question posed by this article is: Would we, the people, be better served if the Senate were controlled by our state legislatures rather than by the Special Interests?
Massive Districts Require Massively Expensive Political Campaigns
As explained in Section Three of Thirty-Thousand.org, the root cause of perfidiousness in the House of Representatives is the need to raise an enormous amount of money in order to fund political campaigns in huge congressional districts. As toxic as that is to the body politic, the Representatives’ financial dependence upon the Special Interests is almost minor league compared to that of the Senators because they, like the governors, are elected statewide. The average state population is over 6.6 million which, as illustrated by the adjacent graphic, is 8.7 times the average congressional district! Moreover, 44 of those states are even more populous than our nation’s largest congressional district. Therefore, unless a senatorial candidate is already quite wealthy (and many are), he or she has a much greater need than House candidates to raise vast sums of money from PACs, corporations, and other Special Interest groups.
Every two years one-third of the 100 Senators is up for re-election. In 2020, there were 33 senatorial races for which over $2.1 billion dollars was raised during the 2019–2020 timeframe by all of the candidates (both incumbents and challengers). Bear in mind that this two-year total represents only the final two years of a Senator’s six-year term – so presumably even more was raised by the incumbents during their term. In other words, senatorial candidates are collectively raising over a billion dollars annually to fund their campaign activities. Therefore, on average, approximately $63 million was raised per Senate election, which is over 14 times the average raised by the Representatives (for each election). And why is that fundraising multiple of 14 so much larger than the average constituency size multiple of 8.7? Presumably it is because there are only 100 Senators, making them even more precious than 435 Representatives.
With respect only to the incumbent Senators, the “median amount of money raised between January 2019 and November 2020 by an incumbent Senator running for reelection in 2020 was $13.2 million — the equivalent of about $19,100 per day. That was far more than Senators who were not up for reelection” in 2020. It is therefore not surprising that of the 31 incumbent Senators seeking reelection in 2020, 26 (84%) were successful despite the fact that there were a total of 206 challengers for all 31 of those races.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way! The need for Senatorial candidates to raise so much money was created by the 17th Amendment’s requirement that the Senators be popularly elected rather than appointed by their states’ legislatures (as stated in the Constitution). It seems likely that these insidious problems were not anticipated when this amendment was ratified in 1913, as the average state population was then only 30% what it is today. The subsequent growth in population has clearly revealed the 17th Amendment to be a cure that is worse than the disease.
Only One Solution
The toxic consequences of Special Interest domination of our House of Representatives can be eliminated by significantly reducing the size of our congressional districts, an option that isn’t available for the Senate. Instead, if we want to eliminate the need for senatorial candidates to collectively beg for a billion dollars every year there is only one solution: Repeal the 17th amendment.
The current arguments for keeping the 17th amendment are, at best, conjectural and unfounded, whereas the more compelling arguments may be those made back when this amendment was ratified. For example, a primary concern was that the U.S. Senate had become a “millionaires’ club”—so how well has the 17th amendment performed in that regard?
Another concern was the risk of some state legislators being bribed to appoint a particular Senator. However, if the citizens of a particular state are concerned about the level of venality in their legislature, then perhaps they should work to eliminate it. Otherwise, why allow their legislature to resolve any significant matter? Besides, just because corruption is endemic in states such as Illinois doesn’t mean that legislatures in states like New Hampshire, Kansas and Minnesota should not be trusted to select their Senators in an ethical way. In any case, the net effect of the 17th Amendment was to trade the possibility of some corruption in the state legislatures for the certainty of wholesale unscrupulousness in the federal Senate.
Relative to repealing the 17th Amendment, perhaps the only vintage concern that broadly resonates today is the possibility of a legislature getting locked into a protracted stalemate over the appointment of its Senator. As with the risk of corruption, that should be a problem for each state to resolve; however, there is a simple solution. Included in the proposed amendment to repeal the 17th amendment could be a provision requiring the state’s governor to appoint the Senator if the legislature fails to do so within a specified timeframe (e.g., 30 days) or, failing that, the role defaults to the state’s longest-serving qualified House member. Said provision should also authorize the legislature to recall or replace its Senator at any time (based on a majority vote).
Returning to the current situation, even if it seems like a good idea for the Senators to be popularly elected, is that what is really happening? After all, most Senators effectively have to be pre-approved by the Special Interests and corporate media in order to make it to the general-election ballot where they then can be “elected”. That is certainly not a better arrangement than having them appointed by your state legislature (as imperfect as it may be).
And once in power, it is nearly impossible for a challenger to unseat an incumbent Senator, especially given that his or her ability to amass great wealth enable many of them to help fund their own reelections. In contrast, if the Senators were appointed by a legislature, they could be recalled at any time.
Imagine instead if the Senators did not have an incumbency advantage that allows 37% of them to be in office for 12 years or much longer! Imagine also how much more productive the Senators could be if they did not have to spend so much time prostrating themselves before the Special Interests for campaign funding.
Most importantly, given that membership in the Senate is currently limited to skilled politicians who either possess great personal wealth or are deeply beholden to various Special Interests, imagine how much better our Congress would be if the states were allowed to appoint men and women solely on the basis of their personal merit. That is, imagine if most of the Senators were statesmen rather than self-serving profligates.
While it is not difficult to imagine those things, it is very difficult to imagine how a Senate comprised of members appointed by the states’ legislatures could be any worse than what we have today. The bottom line: Either our state legislatures control our Senators, or the Special Interests do—that is the choice.
Discussion forum for this topic.
*Arguments for repealing the Seventeenth Amendment:
National Review: Repeal the Seventeenth Amendment (November 10, 2010)
The Federalist: It’s Time To Repeal The 17th Amendment And End Direct Election Of Senators (August 8, 2017)
YIP Institute: The 17th Amendment: A Detrimental Departure From The Constitution (July 12, 2022)
© Thirty-Thousand.org [published 02/01/22, updated 09/25/22]