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Today in History: Senators Forced to Face Voters

(Courtesy Senate Historical Office)
(Courtesy Senate Historical Office)

For a Friday of a recess week, it’s a pretty big day for the Senate.

It was 100 years ago today that oft-failed presidential candidate turned Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan declared by proclamation that the 17th Amendment had been ratified and was added to the Constitution. For the Senate, that meant a fundamental change in the way the chamber did business, because it meant senators had to face elections by voters instead of state legislatures.

The 17th Amendment made news last year, when a number of Republican candidates for the Senate mused about having it go the way of prohibition. As I wrote in August 2012, the 17th Amendment came to be viewed as necessary largely because corruption grew to ran rampant in state legislatures:

For instance, with the states soon to consider the constitutional amendment to subject Senators to the voters, the Senate expelled Sen. William Lorimer (R-Ill.) in 1912. Newspapers discovered that supporters paid about $100,000 to secure the selection of Lorimer by the Illinois Legislature.

In many states, Senate seats that become vacant during a term may still be filled by appointment, as was the case when former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed fellow Democrat Roland Burris to serve out the term of President Barack Obama apparently after being unable to find a bidder for the office.

Based on the pay schedule from the Lorimer case, Balgojevich may have undervalued the Senate seat. Federal investigators found Blagojevich was seeking $1.5 million in benefits and contributions for the seat. By contrast, Lorimer’s associates would have paid almost $2.4 million in today’s money for the office.

Federalist 62, which is attributed to either Alexander Hamilton or James Madison, explains why state legislatures were viewed as the proper forum for selecting senators. It states, in part:

It is equally unnecessary to dilate on the appointment of senators by the State legislatures. Among the various modes which might have been devised for constituting this branch of the government, that which has been proposed by the convention is probably the most congenial with the public opinion. It is recommended by the double advantage of favoring a select appointment, and of giving to the State governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government as must secure the authority of the former, and may form a convenient link between the two systems.

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