WILL LAMENTS EXCESSIVE DEMOCRACY…. The Washington Post‘s George Will, who’s been on a roll lately, had another interesting piece yesterday, blasting Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) for his proposed constitutional amendment on prohibiting gubernatorial Senate appointments. At first blush, that’s not entirely unreasonable — Feingold’s proposal is provocative.
But Will goes to surprising lengths in his criticism. While Feingold’s measure would alter the 17th Amendment, which transferred power from state legislatures to voters in selecting U.S. senators, Will argues it would be “better to repeal” the 17th Amendment altogether.
The Framers established election of senators by state legislators, under which system the nation got the Great Triumvirate (Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun) and thrived. In 1913, progressives, believing that more, and more direct, democracy is always wonderful, got the 17th Amendment ratified. It stipulates popular election of senators, under which system Wisconsin has elected, among others, Joe McCarthy, as well as Feingold.
This kind of thinking is pretty simplistic — state legislators occasionally chose good senators, and voters occasionally choose bad ones, therefore legislators are better suited to select senators.
I suppose Will deserves some credit for outside-the-box thinking — most political observers have gotten past the fight over the 17th, which was resolved 96 years ago. Will is also one of those rare establishment figures willing to argue that the American electorate should have less say over who represents them in Congress.
But on the merits, publius explains why Feingold’s proposal goes the furthest to add legitimacy to the process.
The problem with governor appointments is a structural one — one that goes beyond the individual moral failings of people like Blago. We currently have a vacancy appointment system in which the Blagos of the world have incentives to do funny business (demanding money; extracting concessions, etc.). As long as the incentives are there, future Blagos will inevitably reappear.
Providing state legislatures this authority raises all the same problems. In appointing Senators, state legislators would have all kinds of incentives to engage in corruption in exchange for a Senate appointment. And because those incentives are there — and because we must assume people will be bad when thinking of constitutional structure — corruption would inevitably occur.
The solution, then, is letting voters have their say. Democracy isn’t “always wonderful,” but for accountability and legitimacy, it’s tough to beat.