17th Amendment repeal a viable alternative to term limits

Senator Mitch McConnell was asked, “What do you think of term limits?”

His answer: “You already have them!”


The place was Eastern Kentucky University. It was 2012. Mitch McConnell was speaking to the EKU Future Business leaders. An audience member had asked what was on the tips of many tongues.

That the senator failed to note the advantageous position generally held by incumbents was not surprising. Incumbents nearly always have more money. A challenger needs to have deep pockets. Or some serious patrons who will make up for the shortfall.

Democrats had reason to believe that 2014 might be their year. Their candidate, Alison Lundergan Grimes was a rising star in the Democratic Party. Funds were pouring in from California and the East in support of her candidacy.

For a brief period, it looked like Mitch might get a primary challenge. Then, businessman and later Governor Matt Bevin was the Tea Party favorite. I recall receiving a scathing note from one of their members reminding me of McConnell’s alleged corruption.

I defended McConnell, stating that while he had negatives, he would have a better chance of defeating Grimes. Not that Mitch needed it! He reached into his war chest and soon, Bevin was an afterthought!

In the general election, McConnell continued his generous use of resources to position Grimes as a “puppet for out of state special interests and “Bay area” liberalism. The election wasn’t close.

When the Convention of States organizers came to Kentucky, they quickly realized that “term limits” would be a non-starter. As one supporter phrased, “Mitch McConnell simply has too much power.” Nobody was interested in including term limits in the petition.

I recall then-Governor Rick Perry’s rationale regarding term limits: “If bureaucrats know that a politician is going to be term-limited, they’ll just wink at him and essentially stall until his term ends.” In other words, term limits will not work UNLESS bureaucrats are also term-limited. Which might not be a bad idea!

A better solution might be to take Perry’s suggestion and abolish the 17th Amendment. As in, allowing the state’s senators to select the state’s federal senators. This was the methodology originally laid out by the Founders.

At first glance, it sounds like an unpopular concept. No longer would U.S. senators be elected in a direct primary. We would return to the way things used to be. The state Senates would make the call. Sounds less democratic. Yet…

Benjamin Franklin used the analogy of “pouring hot tea into a saucer before drinking it.”

America was founded as a Republic. The concept of allowing our state senators to choose our federal senators goes hand in hand with retaining control at the state level. In other words, making it more difficult for out-of-state special interests to buy a Senate seat.

Three 2018 midterms come to mind: Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. All three states had Republican-controlled state senates. Would Deb Stabenow, Sherrod Brown, and Tammy Baldwin have won reelection in those states if the decision had been made by those individual state Senates? Doubtful!

In 2020, it’s a mathematical certainty that John James would have beaten Gary Peters in the Michigan Senate race,  had the state Senate made the determination. And those two contested Georgia seats would have remained in Republican control!

Those supporting term limits may want to pivot to a new strategy: “Repeal the 17th Amendment.” If handled as the Founders intended, the pressure would shift to state senators, ensuring that the government remained closer to the people.

It is debatable that repeal of the 17th amendment would have an impact comparable to term limits. But it would bring the senate selections closer to people of the individual states. Furthermore, a politician who defied his own constituency, in the manner that McConnell did during the 2020 election dispute, might be more easily removed.

As a boy growing up in Arkansas, I remember the political complaint of the day: “You never can find ANYONE who will admit to have voted for Bill Fullbright.” Yet, come election time, the TV airwaves would be filled with slick, Madison Avenue, Fulbright re-election ads!

Prior to the passage of the 17th Amendment, competent, conscientious state senators polled their constituents and determined their preferences. Out-of-state special interests found gaining consensus from state senators, reminiscent to “herding  cats.”


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