Thursday, July 16, 2009

The 17th Amendment and the Balance of Federal Power

From my grassroots perspective I see a great deal of frustration among conservative voters. Some have given up on the political process by ignoring current events, and some outright refuse to vote any more. In trying to figure out what has exasperated so many grassroots conservatives I believe I have found a common theme. The greatest frustration seems to be so many Republicans appear to be no different from Democrats. True or not, this seems to be the perception.

For many conservatives the idea that Republicans elected to office (federal or state levels) tout their ability to slow the progress of a left wing agenda seems like a shallow victory, at best. Then there are calls for the Republican Party to abandon its conservative origins and embrace a more moderate attitude, which is precisely the approach Senator John McCain employed to lose the 2008 presidential election.

And now with the sprint toward Marxism that has caught the nation there are concerns over where federal power will end, if ever. One question I have is, if federal power continues to usurp individual and states rights, does it matter anymore if Republicans win governorships or seats in Congress?

In any case, the battle to take back our country is, of course, multi-faceted. I have a proposal on the matter.

If the goal is to stop and even reverse the left leaning trend in our nation there should be certain mile markers to that endeavor. One such marker is explained below in an idea I've been considering for some time. While most of the ideas I've heard of late for a conservative agenda have been designed for more immediate and specific issues, this proposal is of a broader and more general nature. If this idea would ever become a reality I'm sure it would help a great deal in reclaiming America from the Marxian push and restore constitutional limitations that protect individual liberty.

But first, a political party must be devoted to this endeavor. And to form (or retake) that party, it must have the trust of the voters. My idea for regaining that trust is as follows.


The 17th Amendment and the Balance of Federal Power

One of the many brilliant aspects of the American experiment is the fact that our founding fathers had the foresight to provide for the balance of powers. I believe the men who invented the United States of America set up this vital element of successful federalism into three dimensions, one of which is entirely neglected in our contemporary American society.

The first dimension of this separation of powers was the fact that individual liberty stems from God, not from government. The understanding that government does not create individual rights, but is instead to secure them, was the first line of defense against encroaching government power - an innate human respect for the nature of liberty.

A second dimension of balancing government power was settled in a triune system, dividing government power into three separate branches: executive, legislative and judicial. However, this mechanism applies only to the employment of federal power. The states indeed were left to construct their own separate governments and these were typically modeled on the federal example, but a major concern of our founders was that the power of the states could eventually be absorbed into a monolithic federal bureaucracy.

The third dimension of separating the power of government, which I believe is entirely neglected today, is of a more elemental nature. With the ultimate recognition of God’s sovereignty on the one hand, and the practical concerns of implementing government power on the other we have essentially abandoned the element of government which compliments these two concerns: an intermediary dimension.

What I call the intermediary dimension is simply the fact that federal power is not merely balanced against itself, but also against the other two primary aspects of a federal construct – namely, the people and the states. The people have representation in the government via the Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives. Originally the states also had representation at the federal level of government in the Senate, helping to balance the tension between the popular sentiment of the people and the long reach of federal power. Unfortunately because of the 17th Amendment to our Constitution, the Senate is now elected much like the House of Representatives, being another venue for the people’s passions. What this effectively has done is eliminate states’ representation in our federal government.

The balance between the people, the states, and the federal government was possibly the most subtle aspect of the delicate separation of powers set up by our founders. But because this dynamic was eliminated with the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913 a vital counter weight was lost in the balance of government power, the counter weight between the passions of the people and the heavy hand of the national government. Since 1913 the power of the federal government has grown steadily, while the power of the states to govern their own affairs has dwindled, not to mention the right of the people to live their own lives free of federal meddling. And all this was done largely with the approval of the people.

I believe the repeal of the 17th Amendment is necessary for states to take back the authority usurped by the federal government. Also, without this essential dynamic of balance I fear encroachment on personal liberty by federal bureaucracy will continue unless balance is restored in the Congress of the United States by giving back the right of federal representation to the states.

It would greatly please conservatives to see a major political party undertake this effort. Seeing elected officials fight to stave off the encroachment of their rights would inspire many of us and spark a sense of optimism for the many who have given up on their civic duty. Personally, without restoring adequate balance in Congress by reinstating states' representation, I fear most other efforts to stop the push toward Marxism will prove to be fruitless. As long as the passions of leftists and those obsessed with fairness rule our legislative process I don't see much point in fighting the other battles. Only with the states able to protect their own sovereignty (limited though it may be) can the Marxist push be balanced.

I do not mean to suggest common sense would rule, though that would be a pleasant surprise. I only expect the powerful interests of the states to balance the trend of a left leaning populace sacrificing their own rights for the empty promises of a federal hand out.


  1. I've never thought of each state of the union as being an intermediary between the U.S. Federal Government and will of the people.

    State's rights have been diminishing since the Civil War. I argue that the Civil War did more to damage to both state's and people's rights than the 17th Amendment. The 17th Amendment just put it in writing.

    In other words the bomb was built in the Civil War, loaded on the bomber with the 17th Amendment, and now it has finally been loosed.

    (The Civil War wasn't a true civil war. Civil wars are fought when factions struggle for control of a central government. The south wanted nothing to do with Washington. Washington said we own you. It should be called the Second Revolutionary War or the War of the States.)

  2. I don't know if the states are an intermediary between the people and the federal govm't. But I do think the balance between the states/people/fed is an intermediary dimension between the two more obvious dimension of this balance of power. The distinctions I'm trying to make are these:

    * source of rights (not government)
    * balance between states, the people, and the fed
    * balance of the fed itself (three branches of govm't)

  3. At the time of the framing, the citizenry did not identify itself with the federal government. Because travel and communication were so slow and difficult, people were much more local minded and identified themselves as citizens of individual states, rather than as U.S. citizens. In all likelihood, people died where they were born and never ventured very far in between. The exception was, of course, those who "moved out west," but for even them, once they arrived, they "settled" in that area and didn't move around much.

    Now, with the internet, TV, jet airplanes, cars, fax machines, etc. people are much quicker to relocate several times over their lifetime, families are often spread out, and people get their information, not from local newspapers, but from national conglomerates, like Disney Corp. and NewsCorp. So, to the extent that we think of ourselves as part of a larger group at all (which I think we pretty much don't do), its more of a national identity than a state identity.

    I can't tell you the number of times I've explained Alabama's laws and had people look at me with incredulity and disgust and say, "Why isn't the law the same in every state? We're one nation under God, ain't we?"

    So, until federalism is understood and respected conceptually, I think that repealing the 17th amendment would be about as useful as trying to fill a bucket of water by spitting on the ground. In other words, not useful at all. However, the political debate that would have to happen before such a repeal took place might do some good.

    So, my bottom line is that I don't think that the 17th amendment, itself, is that big a deal. But, I do think we need to re-learn the value of federalism. It isn't just a political relic left over from pre-civil war times, as many perceive. If that re-learning can happen via a discussion about the value of the 17th amendment, fine.

  4. That's exactly the result I hope to incite. While I still think the reality of repealing the 17th Amendment would do some good (no idea how much) because of the legitimate issue of balance, I think all the implications of getting that accomplished are where the real impact will occur. If a movement of this sort gets any traction those involved would be reintroduced to many aspects of the American government that are just not taught to the general public any more. Our history is strikingly different from our present and seeing the difference could be so starling that people might actually learn something. But turning that enlightenment into real action is the trick.

  5. I don't think that anything is going to change in the government. The reason for that is by the time they take office even for something as simple as governor, they have forgotten what it is to be normal and worry about the things that matter most in life. Come on do you think that the president is worried about are we going to have enough money to pay the bills this month, or am I going to have to cut the grocery budget back so we can have lights. NO he is not, is the governor of the state worried about that nope they have a pay check that weather it can be afforded or not they get paid. And those of us out here in the real world where we have to wonder if we are going to get anything after they take the taxes out of our pay check or if our kids are going to eat tonight, or how to keep the utilities on we simply don't matter unless it is an election year, then we are to listen to all the lip service and still never get any thing.