Wednesday, August 21st, 2019

Will wrong on 17th Amendment


Conservative commentator and Chicago Cubs fan* George Will wrote a column attacking Senator Russ Feingold’s proposed change to the 17th Amendment to require special elections in the event of a US Senate vacancy. Instead, Will would rather we repeal the 17th Amendment entirely and allow the selection of senators by the state legislatures. (ht: Boots & Sabers)

Feingold’s proposed amendment has attracted support from many quarters, including conservative Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner. My own support for the idea was expressed in a column I wrote for the Waukesha Freeman.

Will, however, believes the selection of senators by the state legislatures would be more in keeping in line with the Founders’ ideas of federalism. He also attacks the idea as an assault on the constitution akin to Feingold’s “campaign finance reform” attacks on the first amendment.

Will’s proposed solution would actually hurt federalism, not aid it. Will fears the senators have become bound to the special interest groups in Washington D.C. But Will misses that the states themselves have now become special interests no longer interested in federalism. Across the country state governments are begging for handouts from Washington D.C. It would only get worse if the senators were to lose some semblance of independence from the states they represent. “Bridges to nowhere” and “state bailouts” would be less of a scandal and more of everyday occurrence if the senators were forced to answer to the legislatures rather than the people.

To call Feingold’s proposed constitutional amendment an attack on the constitution itself, and then to equate it to Feingold’s war on our rights to free political speech, is just attacking by association without substantiation. Clearly the amendment process is built within the constitution and is no more of an attack than Will’s own proposed repeal of the 17th amendment. In addition, Feingold’s proposed amendment is actually supportive of more democracy in the process of selecting representation, not less like his legislative attempts to repeal the first amendment. Ironic, yes, but so is Will’s attempt to tie the two together.

As for the progressive tradition and the poor senators selected by the voters of Wisconsin, yes we have elected Senators Feingold and McCarthy. We also elected Gaylord Nelson, Robert LaFollette, Herb Kohl, and William Proxmire, for whom neither Will nor I would ever have voted.

However, to point to these senators and blame the 17th amendment, Will needs to demonstrate that had the legislature been in charge of selecting senators that we would have done better than these men. A look at our current legislature would certainly disabuse such illusions, and had it been left in the hands of the legislature in 1980 we would never have had Senator Robert Kasten for two terms.

But then, such a qualitative analysis of the senate under the current vacancy-filling method is what has impelled Wisconsin’s junior senator to present his proposed amendment.

* I mention it, but we should not take his support of the Cubs as an indicator of the soundness of his judgement. Right?

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