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EDITORIAL

Should voters have to give up Senate choices?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014 - 12:01 am

Zoeller would do a "soft repeal" of the 17th Amendment.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller is exactly right that the federal government has come to view states not as the co-equal sovereigns envisioned in the U.S. Constitution but rather as entities it has the right to control and subordinate. His proposed remedy for the imbalance is intriguing and deserves widespread discussion, but it might end up causing more problems than it solves.

He is calling for a “soft repeal” of the 17th Amendment, adopted in 1913 and providing for direct election of U.S. senators. Before that, state legislatures chose senators. Since the amendment doesn't say how Senate candidates are to be selected, a soft repeal would give the job to the General Assembly. The voters would still have the final say.

This would not exactly be new to Indiana politics. Candidates for statewide offices except for senator and governor are already chosen by delegates at the party conventions rather than by voters in the primary elections.

But most of those offices are technical. As long as voters have a choice among candidates who meet basic levels of competence and honesty, it doesn't much matter who gets nominated. In fact, most of the jobs should be appointive rather than elective. It matters much more who gets a Senate nomination, so much that voters might be reluctant to give up the selection power.

Zoeller correctly points to a possible beneficial outcome of giving the General Assembly the nominating power: It would revive the idea that U.S. senators are ambassadors of a state's government and not free agents.

“If they had to come back … and get renominated each six-year cycle, they'll be less likely to pass statutes that stuck it to states,” Zoeller told The Times in Munster. “Would we have an unfunded mandate if they had to come back and explain it to members of the Legislature?” It could reduce the number of legal challenges stemming from federal regulations and unconstitutional law.

But if senators paid more attention to the desires of state legislators, they might pay less attention to voters' wishes. And aren't state legislators likely to forget their overall constituencies when they get distracted by all-consuming battles over whom to nominate for Senate?

Indiana Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, likes Zoeller's idea because it might make Washington, “where there is a lot of tone deafness” these days, “pay attention to the states.” He has his own idea for getting Washington's attention – a state-initiated constitutional convention aimed at reducing federal power. We continue to like that idea. Zoeller's is one we'd like to think over a bit.