Miller Wants to Scrap Direct Election of Senators

Posted April 28, 2004 at 6:35pm

It’s hardly a secret that Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) is no great fan of the modern-day Senate. On Wednesday, the maverick Democrat proposed a radical solution to what he sees as the chamber’s ills: repeal of the 17th Amendment.

Miller, a former governor who had to be cajoled into accepting an appointment to replace the late Sen. Paul Coverdell (R) in 2000, has attacked his party’s leaders and plans to campaign for President Bush, introduced a resolution Wednesday that would remove voters from the process and return the responsibility for appointing Senators to state legislatures.

“The 17th Amendment was the death of the careful balance between state and federal governments,” Miller said in a floor speech. “As designed by that brilliant and very practical group of Founding Fathers, the two governments would be in competition with each other and neither could abuse or threaten the other. The election of U.S. Senators by the state legislatures was the linchpin that guaranteed the interests of the states would be protected.”

And while the often unpredictable Miller appeared serious in his dismissal of the 17th amendment’s merits — at one point saying state legislatures committed their “own collective suicide” by approving it — other Senators don’t appear to be rushing to embrace Miller’s idea.

“Don’t ask me that one,” a smiling Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said of Miller’s idea. But obviously eager not to offend a reliable ally, Frist walked away from the question, saying, “He’s pretty smart guy, he’s a pretty smart guy.”

Over the nearly 100 years that Senators have been directly elected, Miller argued, special interests have gained almost total control of the institution, and in turn, the entire national government. While acknowledging that his proposal has little if any chance of garnering even one co-sponsor or a vote beyond his own, the retiring lawmaker nonetheless cited the direct election of Senators as at least partially responsible for the inability of presidents to get their judicial nominees confirmed, runaway government spending, excessive partisanship and the $33 billion in unfunded mandates the National Conference of State Legislatures estimates has been imposed on the states for fiscal 2005.

“This government is in one helluva mess, and frankly, my dear, very few up here give a damn,” Miller said Wednesday. “It’s not a pretty picture. And no matter who you send to Washington — for the most part smart and decent people — it’s not going to change much. The individuals are not so much at fault as the rotten and decaying foundation of what is no longer a republic.

“It’s the system that stinks. And it’s only going to get worse because that perfect balance our brilliant Founding Fathers put in place in 1787 no longer exists. Federalism, for all practical purposes, has become to this generation of leaders some vague philosophy of the past that is dead, dead, dead. It isn’t even on life support. That line on the monitor went flat sometime ago.”

In 1933, the first and only time a constitutional amendment has been repealed, the 21st Amendment overturned the 18th, which was prohibition.

Miller, no stranger to challenging Washington orthodoxy, acknowledge that it was “heresy to even think about changing the system.”

But, he said, the 17th Amendment was nonetheless a “victory for special-interest tyranny and a blow to the power of state governments that would cripple them forever.

“And so, instead of Senators who thoughtfully make up their own minds, as they did during the Senate’s greatest era of Clay, Webster and Calhoun, we now have many Senators who are mere cat’s paws for the special interests. It is the Senate’s sorriest time in its long, checkered and once-glorious history.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.