There is only one time when a U.S. senator is really free to speak the truth. That is when he has announced his retirement. Since he no longer has to worry about raising money, pandering to voters or risking retaliation from his colleagues, he can say what he really thinks about issues no other member of the Senate will talk about. For this reason, it is worth listening to Sen. Zell Miller, Democrat of Georgia, who recently spoke a truth that no senator except one who is retiring would dare say.
On April 28, Miller, the last genuinely conservative Democrat we likely will ever see in the Senate, laid the blame for what ails that august body at the door of the 17th amendment to the Constitution. This is the provision that provides for popular election of senators.
Few people today know that the Founding Fathers never intended for senators to be popularly elected. The Constitution originally provided that senators would be chosen by state legislatures. The purpose was to provide the states -- as states -- an institutional role in the federal government. In effect, senators were to function as ambassadors from the states, which were expected to retain a large degree of sovereignty even after ratification of the Constitution, thereby ensuring that their rights would be protected in a federal system.
The role of senators as representatives of the states was assured by a procedure, now forgotten, whereby states would "instruct" their senators how to vote on particular issues. Such instructions were not conveyed to members of the House of Representatives because they have always been popularly elected and are not expected to speak for their states, but only for their constituents.
When senators represented states as states, rather than just being super House members as they are now, they zealously protected states' rights. This term became discredited during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s as a code word for racism -- allowing Southern states to resist national pressure to integrate. But clearly this is an aberration. States obviously have interests that may conflict with federal priorities on a wide variety of issues that defy easy ideological classification. Many states, for example, would probably enact more liberal laws relating to the environment, health and business regulation if allowed by Washington.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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