Note: A version of this post originally ran as an Indianapolis Business Journal Forefront column. Generally, I refrained from posting columns of mine published in Forefront, but I particularly like this one and wanted to share.
In 1854, the Indiana Democratic Party was led by a man named Jesse Bright, a man described as “hateful and extraordinarily ambitious.” He rose to power as a bully and apparently remained one thereafter. His pugnaciousness was no small part of the series of events that led to a two year period in which Indiana had only one U.S. Senator instead of the customary two. At the time, the General Assembly was responsible for choosing U.S. Senators. However, in 1854, a backlash rose against passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, an act that permitted slavery in states north of the Mason-Dixon line. Bright, himself a slave owner with holdings in Kentucky, pushed a state party platform that endorsed the Act. This was not popular with all Democrats, but Bright and his machinery punished those who opposed it, driving a wedge in the state Democratic party and giving rise to a confederation of former Whigs, Free Soilers, Know-Nothings, and dissident Democrats who joined into a fusion movement that swept the elections that year. They took control of the House of Representatives, but the Democrats narrowly hung on to the state Senate.
The first order of business for the new General Assembly was selecting a United States Senator. However, rather than permitting the choice of a Fusionist, the Democrats refused to caucus. As a consequence, from 1855-1857, Jesse Bright was Indiana’s lone Senator. In 1862, the United States Senate would go on to expel him from the Senate for acknowledging Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederate States of America and for facilitating the sale of arms to the Confederacy.
Dysfunction and machine politics were not unique to the Indiana Senate selection process. In 1906, Hoosier native and DePauw graduate, David Graham Phillips wrote a series of articles entitled “The Treason of the Senate” which played no small part in the eventual passage of the Seventeenth Amendment providing for the direct election, as opposed to legislative selection, of United States Senators. As the industrial might of the country grew in the post-Civil War era, those with major business interests came to understand that they could best exert their influence on the U.S. Senate by offering financial incentives to the state legislators who selected its members. Phillips documented some of these abuses, for example the close alignment between the Rockefellers and the political machine of Rhode Island’s Nelson Aldrich. Rhode Island’s legislature and, therefore, its two Senate seats could be had at very little expense.
Following popular anger at the dysfunction and abuse of the legislative selection system, the United States passed the Seventeenth Amendment, removing the selection process from frequently corruptible legislatures and providing for direct election of our Senators.
Now, however, Indiana officials, including state senator James Smith (R-Charlestown) and Indiana’s Attorney General, Gregory Zoeller have advocated repealing the Seventeenth Amendment. Earlier this year, Smith introduced legislation proposing to take the legally dubious step of rescinding Indiana’s ratification of that Amendment. Zoeller recently expressed his distaste for popular election of Senators at a meeting of the Federalist Society. The old way, he contends, was better because it made Senators instruments of the State rather than instruments of the people, thereby enhancing our federalist form of government with the States themselves being represented in Congress.
My high school history teacher told us that “today’s reforms are tomorrow’s corruption.” And our current U.S. Senate certainly is not a model organization. However, trading in today’s abuses for yesterday’s corruption is not the way to go about reform. If the state legislatures are at odds with the popular will, the solution is not to neuter the will of the People. More likely the solution is to change the composition of the legislature.