Ben Sasse is mistaken with idea for the election of senators in America

Ben Sasse is mistaken with idea for the election of senators in America
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Facing an easy election, Senator Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseCornyn: Relationships with Trump like 'women who get married and think they're going to change their spouse' RNC chairwoman: Republicans should realize distancing themselves from Trump 'is hurting themselves in the long run' The Memo: Trump's second-term chances fade MORE has decided to jump into the national political fray. Rather than get involved on the race for president, Sasse is proposing such major changes to the Senate. Arguably his most significant revamp suggestion is that the country should now repeal the 17th Amendment, which mandates the direct election of senators, then have state legislatures elect senators to Congress.

Sasse is latching onto an idea that has been popular for conservatives in recent years. In theory, this proposal would fit in with the previous desire of conservatives for an increase in federalism and devolution of power to the states. Unsurprisingly, Sasse does not mention to us that Republicans would be the beneficiaries of any change over the short term, since they control the legislature in more than half the states.

While Sasse argues that removing the 17th Amendment may reverse the national focus with current politics, the reality is likely to be the opposite. Such a change would almost certainly make national the state legislative elections. What we would see is the near total elimination of local issues. This is happening to some degree today, but it would become a standard across the country, as every possible legislative win would be seen as the chance to gain control of the Senate. Parties and outside interest groups would look to recall elections as a way to gain an advantage in an off year fight, which could create a truly forever campaign.


Gerrymandering, which has deleterious effects on politics, would rapidly rise in importance. As we saw once more with the debate for the census, redistricting has become a national battle for control of the House. If the idea from Sasse were enacted, state legislatures would work on the most extreme gerrymandering possible to gain control for the Senate. We saw the effects of redistricting on Wisconsin, as Republicans won 64 percent of the legislative seats with only 46 percent of the vote in 2018. We could watch redistricting turn into a constant presence.

All this would take place before state legislatures that have not seen glory in recent years. Indeed, the fabled “laboratories of democracy” appear to have a greater problem of corruption than the federal government. In the last few months, Ohio Speaker Larry Householder was arrested for his part in a $60 million bribery scheme, Illinois Speaker Michael Madigan was in a bribery scandal that offered “no show” jobs, and former New York Speaker Sheldon Silver was finally forced to report to prison.

If corruption is a challenge today, what would occur when state legislators are able to control the coveted Senate seats? Rather than a rush of money into ads trying to win voters, Senate candidates would focus their massive spending on the one interest group of state legislators. A major reason for adopting the 17th Amendment was to lower the bribery that was endemic in the 19th century selection process for the Senate. No one should think that current legislators are any less susceptible to financial inducements. Wealthy individuals are also happy to spend millions of dollars from their own money for pursuit of a seat. It is hard to see that the Senate will not see a rise in corruption or be less of a millionaires club.

There is a reason the repeal of the 17th Amendment has thus far not gone past a fringe talking point for Republicans. After all, Sasse and others are running against the value of increased democracy. They are saying not to trust voters but rather legislators. However, even beyond this difficult sell, the argument in favor of state elections for senators lacks credence. The record of modern state legislatures does not suggest that they would do better with picking state champions in Washington, nor does it seem like it will reverse problems with the system. Instead, it is likely that national politics will further divide state legislatures in America.

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow focused on politics and history at Hugh Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York.