A former aide to state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who is running for Congress said in a recent debate among Republican candidates for Tennessee's 5th District the idea he is most passionate about is repealing the 17th Amendment.
The 17th Amendment?
The 14th Amendment we've heard a lot about recently with the repeal of Roe v. Wade, but the 17th? That probably quickly sent debate attendees to their smartphones to learn the 17th Amendment allowed the direct election of United States senators.
Tres Wittum, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate who was an aide to Watson from 2011 to 2017, said returning the election of U.S. senators to state legislators would give legislators a needed voice in the federal government.
He elaborated his thoughts in a weekly podcast of The Pamphleteer, a Nashville alternative digital newsletter.
"These [senators] are elected for six years, unchecked," Wittum said. "Who balances the U.S. Senate? It used to be that if you didn't do the business of your state, they'd pull you back. Now they come home and say, 'This is your mandate. You will do this.'"
Perhaps a little history is in order here.
The plan adopted by the framers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, according to Article 1, Section 3, was that "The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof for six Years."
"The framers," according to a history on the U.S. Senate website, "believed that in electing senators, state legislatures would cement their ties with the national government. They also expected that senators elected by state legislatures would be freed from pressures of public opinion and therefore better able to concentrate on legislative business and serve the needs of each state. In essence, senators would serve as 'states' ambassadors' to the federal government."
Unfortunately, disputes about who would be named by state legislatures arose, and by 1826 proposals for direct election of senators were first heard. Not until 1913, though, was the initiative approved by Congress and ratified by the states.
Wittum isn't the first conservative in recent years to suggest the country return to what Constitution framers like James Madison believed would be part of the checks and balances system of the republic, but he is the first candidate we're aware of who has firmly embraced the idea.
Joshua Grundleger, writing in The Dispatch in May, suggested the repeal of the 17th Amendment would reduce national pressures on senators, the influence of special interests with the elimination of Senate primaries, and the sway of national parties and the media. State legislatures, he said, would be the mediating leveler between such pressures and the senators.
However, John York, writing for The Heritage Foundation in 2018, argued that states are so reliant on federal funds that state legislators won't fight for actual constitutional federalism (the sharing of power) "if their own constituents goad them to take federal money ." Until the public demands the federal government stay within its constitutional bounds, he says, could such a change be considered.
Wittum, on The Pamphleteer podcast, said he believes direct election of senators "has harmed this country. Those of us who are constitutional conservatives understood that our Founding Fathers actually created a democracy, a republic, based on state representation."
It follows, he said, that "Tennessee makes the best rules for Tennesseans."
Wittum said senators have wound up being "a bunch of glorified congressmen who act like federal governors. When Tres Wittum goes to Congress, I'm sure the Senate's not going to be in favor of it, but we're going to talk about it."
Watson, his former boss, said he and his former aide discussed the issue many times. And he seems to be with him in spirit.
"As you know," he wrote in an email to this page, "the 17th Amendment is a result of the populist/progressive movement of the early 20th century. Now, under the 17th Amendment both chambers have the same constituency, which means that a U.S. senator is really nothing more than a representative with a state-wide district and a longer term of office. States are no longer represented as a constituency.
"One could argue," Watson said, "that this change opened the door to the progressive policies that began to permeate the federal landscape, especially in the 1930s and forward."
However, he's not sure voters are ready to give up their chance to vote for their senators.
"It's a fun topic to discuss and debate," he said, "but repealing it? Highly unlikely that you could find enough support to remove the vote of individual citizens for their representative in the Senate."
We, like Watson, don't believe this is an idea whose time has come. Indeed, in Tennessee, it seems the majority Republicans in state legislature already have two senators in Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty who think very nearly on the same page as they do.
Wittum is one of nine Republican candidates in the redrawn 5th District vying to replace the retiring Jim Cooper. How he'll do against other names such as former state House Speaker Beth Harwell and retired Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead is unclear, but we're sure the 17th Amendment is not the right hill to die on.