Massachusetts Democrats Make a Hash of the Seventeenth Amendment

It is worth noting that there is a states’ rights argument to be made here also. Those most opposed to federalism could reflexively bristle at removing any choices or options from the state governments. And in the case of strictly state elections, it’s a valid point. But members of the Senate and the House of Representatives are not being elected to a post which only affects their home turf. They are sent off to a larger club which is distinctly federal in nature. Voters moving from one state to another should be able to expect that the process will be the same no matter where they settle.

Further, the idea of an empty seat in either chamber constituting an “emergency,” as Governor Deval Patrick is currently maintaining, flies in the face of constitutional consistency. House seats remain empty for measurable periods on a regular basis and the union has thus far stubbornly failed to crumble into dust. Were the Seventeenth Amendment to be amended so that vacant senate seats would be temporarily filled at “the next regularly scheduled elections” (which take place every fall across the land) you would never have an empty seat for more than twelve months.

For those who find themselves greatly disconcerted over the math, there is also nothing magical about the number 100 when it comes to Senate votes. When I was born, there were only 96 senators and things seemed to function just fine. Even the Constitution itself doesn’t rely on raw numbers. We assume that you need sixty votes to get anything done in the upper chamber, but that number is a product of proportions rather than a fixed minimum. Even if a dozen seats sat empty following some unimaginable disaster, business could still be conducted.

The Massachusetts legislature has acted boldly, without so much as a wink or a nod to the principles under which voters should always have the first and last word in determining those who would represent them without interference via partisan tampering. By acting in a way which should have rightly embarrassed previous generations of lawmakers, they have exposed a flaw in one of the most basic aspects of our constitutional structure. Rather than flailing our arms and decrying their blatant manipulation of the game’s rules, we should be asking ourselves if it isn’t high time to change those rules and take that particular toy out of the hands of the children.