The US Senate and the Vision of the Constitution

James Madison, Architect of the Constitution

This is the first in a series of articles on how the Founding Fathers’ vision remains important. States’ loss of say in the federal system harmed them in the long run.

The Founding Fathers had one powerful goal in mind when drafting the Constitution apart from creating a more effective government, the preservation of liberty for individuals. When they fought the anti-federalists over ratification, both sides argued that their ideas would best protect the natural rights of each citizen to life, liberty, and property.

They did not trust simple majority rule democracy and history proved them right. German voters abandoned democracy in the early 1930s and ended up with National Socialism. Only a balance of interests can protect liberty. The Constitution provided that balance, but over time Americans chose to erode the original design.

Eroding the Vision of the Founding Fathers

One critical change occurred in 1913. Congress approved a constitutional amendment changing how the nation selects its United States Senators. Originally the Founders intended that state legislatures select this body which would represent each state equally. This helped to create an implied, but important balance between the federal government, the states, and the people. Balancing out these great institutions meant that the liberty of individuals always remained protected. Americans did not have to trust in self-restraint of any one because the other two had the ability to pull a rogue element back into line. Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 28 assured Americans that the Constitution as presented in 1788 would allow “State governments will, in all possible contingencies, afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority.”[1]

Ending state selection of United States Senators led to an expansion of federal power at the expense of the states. In the nearly hundred years since this amendment passed, Congress has strongly asserted its will over state governments and legislatures on any issue they choose. The Tenth Amendment, last of the Bill of Rights, specifically tries to protect states from federal power, stating that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”[2] To get around this explicit restriction Congress threatens to revoke funds for highways or other projects if states do not comply with demands to raise drinking ages, require seat belt use, or pass some other law deemed necessary.

Unfunded Mandates: The Scourge of State Governments

Worst of all, states have to deal with unfunded mandates. Ask any state elected or appointed official what their worst headache is and they will answer “unfunded mandates.” Congress in almost every session passes some sort of requirement onto the states. Often these deal with education or some other social issue. Usually a congressman somewhere has a pet idea, wheels and deals to get friends to support it, they all look good for a brief instant, and the state gets stuck with some foolish bureaucratic requirement, but no funds to pay for it. States get forced to do certain things, but receive no money to pay for it. Most states in financial crisis now are reeling under the weight of these mandates. At the end of the day, taxpayers have to come up with the money or face reduced services.

Popular election of senators removed state governmental voices from the operation of the federal government. While on the surface this looks like an expansion of democracy, it only placed more authority into the hands of the branch of government most dangerous to liberty.


  • [1] Federalist 28.
  • [2] United States Constitution.