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Wendy Schiller: 17th Amendment centennial

May 30, 2013  |  Media Contact: Courtney Coelho |  401-863-7287
Friday, May 31, 2013, marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 17th Amendment, which transferred control of Senate elections from state legislators to voters. Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science, recently co-authored a paper published by the Brookings Institute, which argues that the amendment remains a “promise unfulfilled.” She spoke with Courtney Coelho about her findings. 

Wendy Schiller“The 17th Amendment promised a better, more responsive Senate and did not produce it.”Wendy Schiller
“The 17th Amendment promised a better, more responsive Senate and did not produce it.”
Why was the 17th Amendment initially adopted?

We used to elect senators in state legislatures, so the house and senate would vote separately and if they picked the same person with a majority that person would become senator. If they did not, they had to vote every single day thereafter until they picked somebody. About 30 percent of the elections that took place in the later part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century were conflictual, where they could not agree on the first ballot. And this created a big opportunity for corruption, where state legislators were bribed for their votes. Also, very few state legislators ever served more than one or two terms, so there were many senators who were elected and then nobody was around to hold them accountable six years later when they came back to run for re-election. There were deadlocks, where states did not elect a senator for one or two years, sometimes three or four years.

At the time, there was a general movement to open up government, called the Progressive Movement, and part of that movement was to take this decision out of the hands of state legislatures and give elections of senators directly to the people, just as the people directly elected the House of Representatives. So that’s what really drove the adoption of the 17th Amendment.

In your paper, you point out that many aspects of today’s Senate elections still closely mirror the climate that existed prior to the 17th Amendment. Did the amendment not change anything?

The whole point of creating direct elections to the Senate was to bring in senators who were regular people, senators who were not so dependent on big business for campaign money, who were not so friendly with economic elites, and who were generally more responsive to a wider range of interests in the state, and almost none of that has really happened. One hundred years ago, most senators came from the House of Representatives and/or came from the state legislature, or they were governors, or they were wealthy business people. You have almost the same breakdown today as you did then.

In terms of funding campaigns for state legislators who would then vote for a particular senator, hundreds of millions of dollars was spent every campaign cycle. Today, we spend close to $1.2 billion, and that’s a conservative estimate. We were supposed to take money out of the equation, and money is a bigger part of the equation than ever before.

The Senate is as partisan, as conflictual, as elite as it ever was. So we call it a promise unfulfilled, because the 17th Amendment promised a better, more responsive Senate and it did not produce it.

Do you think the election system is the only problem with the Senate?

The expansion of the federal government is what has really changed the role of senators in the last 100 years, not the mechanism by which we elect them. The range of things that the federal government does makes the job of a U.S. senator much more complicated. When people look at the Senate and complain about the filibuster, to me the filibuster really is not the problem. It is the way the Senate is structured, having two senators for every state, even though California has 37 million people and Rhode Island has 1 million people. It’s unequal representation. Second, it’s such a vast job now that it seems to me that there are not enough senators, that we should expand the number of senators that we have. And we stagger elections and that’s really one of the biggest problems. We don’t have a majority of senators that are ever up for election at the same time, so the pressure on the Senate to get laws passed is much less than the House. Two-thirds of the Senate is not up for election in 2014, so if they don’t pass a bill, it’s not that big a deal to them.

If you could propose an ideal model for the Senate, what would it be?

I would apportion the Senate according to population with some range. I would give every state at least two senators, and then according to increases in population, I’d add a senator for every extra million people. I’d keep the filibuster and expand the size of the Senate so it is not such an expensive proposition to get elected to the Senate. Right now so much money is spent on campaigns because there are only two seats. If we had more Senate seats, we would spend less money. I think it would hopefully be less subject to the influences of corporate America because there would be more voices in the Senate, more diversity.

However, I would point out that there are examples where changing the structure may not work. For Rhode Island in particular, Nelson Aldrich was one of the most powerful senators who served during the period of time of our study. He was a Republican party leader in the Senate, and he got elected the old fashioned way, by bribing state legislators. But he did a lot for Rhode Island and was very effective. So you wonder if you changed the Senate, would a small state senator, like Nelson Aldrich or Jack Reed, still be as powerful?

Why was it important to you to write this paper?

This article is part of a larger book project designed to uncover the reality of what Senate indirect elections were really like before the 17th Amendment. People have a lot of misunderstandings about what it was like before. Conventional wisdom says that citizens would vote in state legislative elections and state legislators would promise to vote for a particular person for U.S. Senate, so there was accountability to the voter. We find no evidence that happened on any systematic basis. Even if state legislators promised to vote for a particular person, once that legislator got into office, that Senate candidate might not have even run or the Senate candidate might not have gotten the majority vote, so that legislator voted for someone else. The state legislators themselves did not run for re-election, so if they made a promise when they got elected, they did not really have to keep it. There was no accountability and certainly no “direct election” before the 17th Amendment. So this was really a process that was controlled and captured by party operatives and elites, much like it is today.

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