Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Is 'soft repeal' of 17th Amendment a good idea?

Published: Sunday, Jan. 29 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

Since altering our federal constitution is not easy, the 17th Amendment should be safe. However, the architects of the recent Utah resolution, state Sens. Howard Stephenson and Curt Bramble, have crafted a brilliant method to maneuver around the inconvenient amendment process — substituting the legislative caucuses for a political party in nominating candidates. The intent of Stephenson and other sponsors is not to insult Sens. Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett but rather to address the issues many believe this amendment is causing.

LaVarr and others speak loftily of the halcyon days and "golden age" when states chose their senators, but the reality is far different. Within 30 years from the founding of the republic, measures were frequently introduced in Congress to resolve the increasing problem in these legislative selections. During the 1800s, there were numerous verifiable incidents of bribery by affluent politicos to influence deliberations and in effect purchase a Senate seat. Frequently, states were not fully represented in the Senate because of deadlocks between the statehouse and Senate over the ultimate choice. In fact, 45 stalemates occurred in 20 states from 1891 to 1905 alone. Things got so bad that by 1912 over two-thirds of states conducted referenda to allow public expression of their choices for the position.

The GOP has controlled the Senate for almost 18 of the last 25 years. These Republicans got elected on a platform of states' rights and limited government. If these self-professed conservatives could not achieve these goals, altering the selection process offers no hope. Indeed, blaming the 17th for the county's woes is similar to faulting alcohol for the transgressions of the alcoholic. (To complete this simile, we all recall the history lesson detailing the disastrous results when the best intentioned politicos manipulated the Constitution to prevent imbibing.)

Over the years, I have entertained thousands of Utahns with humorous stories of the antics on Capitol Hill. Yet, I am a firm believer in the legislative process and a staunch defender of the Legislature as an institution. Legislators are chosen to represent their geographic districts, and perform well in this capacity. But, the dynamics of lawmaking in behalf of constituents is not transferable to deciding statewide leaders. Furthermore, the force of special interests will always exist in Congress, regardless of the selection process.

Despite our strange television viewing and sinful eating habits, Americans are a people blessed with common sense. We have been, and will remain, the superior judges in determining the makeup of the Senate.

Republican LaVarr Webb was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. He now is a political consultant and lobbyist. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Recently, the lobbying firm Foxley and Pignanelli, of which Frank Pignanelli is a partner, was retained by the Utah Media Coalition to lobby the Utah Legislature on press freedom issues. The Deseret Morning News is a coalition member. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. He was a former candidate for Salt Lake mayor. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is executive director of the state Department of Administrative Services in the Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. administration. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.

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