Legislators seek say over U.S. senators

State lawmakers working around 17th Amendment

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 24 2006 9:11 a.m. MST

Deseret Morning News graphic

Utahns trust their 104 part-time legislators with many important decisions. But should "selecting" or "directing" the state's two U.S. senators be among them?

State Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and 19 of his 28 colleagues say "yes."

"The 17th Amendment was a huge mistake," Stephenson said Monday, the day he introduced what he calls "a soft repeal" of the 1914 amendment to the U.S. Constitution that called for popular election of the U.S. Senate. Previously, as written by the Founding Fathers, U.S. senators were picked by their state legislatures.

Stephenson's SB156 would allow state political parties to write internal party rules that would let party members in the Utah House and Senate pick their party's U.S. Senate candidates.

The bill would also call for the Legislature as a whole to "direct" U.S. senators on important issues via lawmakers adopting resolutions. It would require a U.S. senator to report back to the Legislature how he or she were "following" the direction set out in the resolutions.

With 20 votes out of 29 already signed up on SB156, Stephenson believes his bill will pass the Senate. "Then we'll see about the (Utah) House."

Stephenson's bill brought a quick reaction from U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, a Republican like Stephenson, and two-thirds of both the Utah Senate and House.

"It would be a unique experiment, unlike anything any other state has ever done," said Bennett, who doesn't face re-election until 2010. "I have an idea how the (Utah) Republican voters would react to being disenfranchised — not allowed to vote in a Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. I suspect they would not be happy."

And legislators who support SB156 could find themselves in political trouble, Bennett warned.

The 17th Amendment says U.S. senators must be elected by popular vote, and since Utahns would be making the final choice in the November general election, SB156 would be constitutional, Stephenson said.

Joe Cannon, Utah GOP chairman, said he personally doesn't see a problem with the Utah Legislature "having some kind of say" in the party selection of a U.S. Senate candidate, considering the original federal structure the Founding Fathers created.

But he didn't know whether party delegates, through voluntarily changing party bylaws, would give up their votes for candidates in the state convention or give up the GOP primary in U.S. Senate races.

Cannon has experienced the selection process firsthand. He came out of the 1992 state GOP convention ahead of Bennett, only to lose by 2 percentage points to Bennett in a close Republican U.S. Senate primary that year.

Bennett doesn't believe the party's rank-and-file members who attend neighborhood mass meetings would vote for a delegate who would then give up that power via changes to GOP party rules. "And I think any legislators" who voted for such a bill may find themselves criticized by rank-and-file Republicans, he said.

"Speaking theoretically," Bennett said, if he were put in a position of being denied the GOP nomination by Republican legislators, he could bypass the Legislature and run a write-in campaign, raise "$2 million or $3 million" from traditional incumbent national sources and win re-election as a Republican.

"I don't think that would ever happen," said Bennett, because he doesn't believe Utah Republicans as a party would ever give up the "great power" of picking their own U.S. Senate candidates.

Stephenson said the Founding Fathers were right in having U.S. senators elected by state legislatures. Adopting the 17th Amendment was one of the biggest governing mistakes the country has ever made, he said.

"It has led to disastrous results — a runaway federal government, budget-busting spending like a drunken sailor, a terrible erosion of states' rights," Stephenson said.

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