State’s Rights Craziness Without the Constitutional Amendments

Many of you are probably aware that one of the wingnut ideas that has accompanied the rise of the Tea Party Movement was repealing the 17th amendment and letting state legislators–not those idiot looters and takers–choose U.S. Senators again. Hard to say if this highly modern proposal was more or less popular in Tea circles than, say, the attribution of all zoning ordinances to a U.N. conspiracy to rob us (or more immediately, strip mall developers) of our priceless heritage of freedom. But it was definitely out there being seriously discussed.

Trouble is, of course, that enacting or repealing constitutional amendments is a pretty heavy lift. So those fine champions of constitutional conservatism, the Republican Caucus of the Tennessee legislature, has identified and is apparently looking at actually enacting a step just short of that: giving themselves the power to control Senate party nominations. At National Journal, Charlie Cook is in awe:

Tennessee state Sen. Frank Nicely, a Republican from Strawberry Plains, has introduced S.B. 471, which would, beginning in 2016, eliminate party primaries for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee. Members of the state Legislature would instead select the nominees. Republican House and Senate caucuses would pick the GOP nominee, and their Democratic counterparts would select their candidate. State Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, has also introduced the bill in the Tennessee General Assembly.

My first reaction was to be dismissive. In Washington, as in state legislatures around the country, we often see goofy bills and resolutions introduced, but most thankfully die without any action being taken. But what really got my attention was the news that the Tennessee Senate’s State and Local Government Committee voted 7-1 last week to advance the bill. And, no, this isn’t an April Fool’s joke.

My second reaction was, why stop there? Why not just repeal the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and go back to the way things were before 1913 when voters had no say at all, and state legislatures elected U.S. senators? The 17th Amendment calls for the popular election of U.S. senators but is silent on nominations; indeed, the Constitution is silent on the whole issue of political parties

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As a result, states pretty much have a free hand in determining how nominees are selected.

Cook goes on to note party nomination practices in Utah and Virginia that are not exactly exemplars of democracy, either. But this one clearly takes the cake.

State Democratic Chairman Roy Herron was quoted by columnist Tom Humphrey in Knoxnews.com as saying that Nicely’s proposal would “turn back the clock a century or two.” Humphrey quoted state GOP Chairman Chris Devaney as saying, “You can always count on Senator Nicely to come up with innovative proposals conservatives can be proud of. This is another step in that direction, and I certainly think it is an interesting idea.”

That’s an interesting choice of words.

Another one of Nicely’s interesting ideas was to be one of four Republican state legislators in Tennessee to sign onto a 2009 lawsuit challenging President Obama to release his birth certificate. Another was his opposition to an effort to make cockfighting a felony. Also interesting, Nicely was deemed “hostile to business” by the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, something rather odd for a Republican lawmaker.

Hopefully cooler heads will prevail. This only came to my attention when a prominent Republican in the state whom I have known for years brought it up with me, hoping that national attention might help kill a profoundly bad idea. Let’s hope this column will help.

Don’t count on it, Charlie. These birds glory in the opportunity to shock people like you.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.