What Stephen Lemons Missed About The 17th Amendment


By Tom Prezelski

Re-posted from Rum, Romanism and Rebellion

464px-Henry_Fountain_AshurstFor Arizonans, the rise of the TEA Party nationally has only meant that we now have a convenient name for a strain of Republicans who have always menaced the political scene and been, to at least some extent, an obstacle to our progress as a state. Back in the 80s and early 90s, we called them Mechamites, after our not-so-esteemed Governor Evan Mecham. This particular breed was already decades old by this time, as even Arizona’s first Governor, George W.P. Hunt referred to the “standpat reactionary furies” in what we now call The East Valley as the chief obstacle to his progressive agenda.

These days, there is little question that this crowd is driving the Republican agenda, and they made a spectacularly successful effort to embarrass us as a state this week. The thing that got most of the attention was a resolution by the Arizona Republican Party condemning Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) for attempting to be an effective legislator. The author of the resolution, a failed candidate for legislature and noticeably less than telegenic fellow, stumbled through an interview with Chris Matthews, refusing to admit that the President was lawfully elected and lecturing the former chief of staff to House Speaker Tip O’Neill about Ronald Reagan. Apparently he was unaware that Matthews worked with and personally knew President Reagan, and if you wait long enough, he will even tell you about the book he wrote about him.

All of this begs the question: given that the Republican Party runs the state, shouldn’t they be able to find a more effective spokesman than this guy?

What got a little less attention was a resolution calling for the repeal of the 17th Amendment, the 1913 revision to the United States Constitution that calls for the direct election of Senators rather than having them elected by the state legislatures. Stephen Lemons at the New Times was one of the few reporters who gave this more than passing mention, but he failed to give it the proper context.

Lemons jokes that this resolution was being pushed by disgraced former State Senator Russell Pearce (R-Mesa) as a means to get himself back in politics. While such a thing would certainly be in character for the former Senator, the truth is that this has been a cause celebre for Pearce and the right wing for quite a long time. Supporters of repeal argue that the 17th Amendment, a progressive era reform intended to address the cesspool of bribery and corruption that the appointment process had become and to generally make government more responsible to the people, was what began the precipitous slide away from “states rights,” though the failure of General John Bell Hood to take a hill in Pennsylvania some 50 years before might have had something to do with it as well. A cursory Google search will yield a catalog of alleged ills that activists blame on the fact that the United States Senate is a popularly elected body.

Marcus-smithWhat largely has not been discussed (except on this blog) is that there is potentially some question about what repeal of the 17th Amendment would do in Arizona. The State Constitution calls for an “advisory vote” for the United States Senate. In December, 1911, candidates for Senate appeared on the primary and general election ballots along with candidates for U.S. House, Governor and legislature. After a spirited and hard-fought campaign, Democrats Henry Fountain Ashurst and Marcus Aurelius Smith came out on top. The following March, the legislature ratified the results unanimously and without debate. It is clear that the framers of the Arizona Constitution intended that Senators be elected and that legislative action was to be merely a formality.

The strange obsession with this issue shows a certain contempt for popular sovereignty among movement conservatives. This also manifested itself this week in the legislature with regard to voting rights. It is also shown in their passion for a wonky issue that has almost no popular support, despite the fact that these folks consistently claim that they are speaking for the majority of Americans, an arrogant assertion that can only be made by an insular group of like-minded obsessives who talk to no one but each other.

Moreover, it shows that folks who claim to be committed to the original intent of the framers of the United States Constitution are largely ignorant and unconcerned about their own state’s constitution and the intent of its framers. Perhaps none of this is really about constitutional principles at all, but merely about the oddball obsessions of some truly strange and narrow-minded people.