Article 1 §3.1 About that Senate

The Constitution is kind of a big deal. But most of us have never read it, at least not lately. Lately, I’m reading it very closely, and I’m sharing here. I’d love to talk with others about it. After all, in a functioning democracy we should all be Constitutional scholars.

Our story so far: There are seven articles in the Constitution. I’m currently reading the First Article, which deals with the legislative branch of government. The First Article has 10 sections. Section One establishes a bicameral Congress and Section Two deals with the House of Representatives.

Today I’m starting Section Three. 

So here goes – The Constitution, Article 1 §3.1.

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof3, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.

I do love these procedural paragraphs, don’t you? So straightforward. Where the House grants representation proportional to population, the Senate gives every state two members for a total of two votes. Each term is for six years. Senators are chosen by the – wait, what?

chosen by the Legislature thereof

No, I’m sure I remember voting for my Senators. Better check the footnote.

Note 3: Article 1 Section 3 Clause 1 has been affected by Amendment XVII Section 1.

Well, I’ll be damned. I never knew that something as basic as direct election of Senators required a Constitutional amendment. Since much of our system was based on England’s “higher” and “lower” houses, it kind of makes sense that the House would be proportional to population and elected often by the people, while the Senate would be more, um, professional?

Well, amendments are going to get their own posts, but I’m curious about the history that would lead to #17. According to the Center for Legislative Archives, state legislatures elected Congressional Senators for the first 125 years of our democracy. Throughout the 19th century, the idea of direct election was tossed around but didn’t really gain traction until the late 1800s when several problems came to forefront of American politics:

  • State legislatures deadlocked over the election of senators, leading to long-term vacancies in the Senate;
  • political machines gained control over state legislatures, electing questionable Senators;
  • the Senate came to be seen as a millionaire’s club serving powerful private interests; and
  • the rise of the People’s Party, (aka the Populist Party) added motivation for making the Senate more directly accountable to the people.

That sounds a lot like a situation in American politics today:

  • Electoral and popular votes give different results in Presidential elections, requiring lengthy recounts
  • Party politics and jurisdictional boundaries result in the election of questionable presidents
  • The presidency comes to be seen as divorced from mainstream interests and beholden to party and corporate donors
  • The popularity of a (sort of) independent presidential candidate and rising interest in establishing a viable third party add motivation for electoral reform.

Personally, I’m over the electoral college. Time to study the 17th Amendment for clues on getting rid of it.

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