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George Will / February 22, 2009

Sen. Feingold’s Constitution

A simple apology would have sufficed. Instead, Sen. Russ Feingold has decided to follow his McCain-Feingold evisceration of the First Amendment with Feingold-McCain, more vandalism against the Constitution.

The Wisconsin Democrat, who is steeped in his state’s progressive tradition, says, as would-be amenders of the Constitution often do, that he is reluctant to tamper with the document but tamper he must because the threat to the public weal is immense: Some governors have recently behaved badly in appointing people to fill U.S. Senate vacancies. Feingold’s solution, of which John McCain is a co-sponsor, is to amend the 17th Amendment. It would be better to repeal it.

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.

The 17th Amendment says that when Senate vacancies occur, “the executive authority” of the affected state “shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.”

Feingold’s amendment says:

“No person shall be a Senator from a State unless such person has been elected by the people thereof. When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such state shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies.”

Feingold says that mandating election of replacement senators is necessary to make the Senate as “responsive to the people as possible.” Well. The House, directly elected and with two-year terms, was designed for responsiveness. The Senate, indirectly elected and with six-year terms, was to be more deliberative than responsive.

Furthermore, grounding the Senate in state legislatures served the structure of federalism. Giving the states an important role in determining the composition of the federal government gave the states power to resist what has happened since 1913 – the progressive (in two senses) reduction of the states to administrative extensions of the federal government.

Severing senators from state legislatures, which could monitor and even instruct them, made them more susceptible to influence by nationally organized interest groups based in Washington. Many of those groups, who preferred one-stop shopping in Washington to currying favors in all the state capitals, campaigned for the 17th Amendment. So did urban political machines, which were then organizing an uninformed electorate swollen by immigrants. Alliances between such interests and senators led to a lengthening of the senators’ tenures.

The Framers gave the three political components of the federal government (the House, Senate and presidency) different electors (the people, the state legislatures and the electoral college as originally intended) to reinforce the principle of separation of powers, by which government is checked and balanced.

Although liberals give lip service to “diversity,” they often treat federalism as an annoying impediment to their drive for uniformity. Feingold, who is proud that Wisconsin is one of only four states that clearly require special elections of replacement senators in all circumstances, wants to impose Wisconsin’s preference on the other 46. Yes, he acknowledges, they could each choose to pass laws like Wisconsin’s, but doing this “state by state would be a long and difficult process.” Pluralism is so tediously time-consuming.

Irony alert: Feingold’s amendment requiring elections to fill Senate vacancies will owe any traction it gains to Senate Democrats’ opposition to an election to choose a replacement for Barack Obama. That opposition led to the ongoing Blagojevich-Burris fiasco.

By restricting the financing of political advocacy, the McCain-Feingold speech-rationing law empowers the government to regulate the quantity, timing and content of political speech. Thanks to Feingold, McCain and others, the First Amendment now, in effect, reads: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech unless it really, really wants to in order to guarantee that there will be only as much speech about the government as the government considers appropriate, and at times the government approves.

Now Feingold proposes to traduce federalism and nudge the Senate still further away from the nature and function the Framers favored. He is, as the saying goes, an unapologetic progressive, but one with more and more for which to apologize.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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