The Utah State Senate is currently considering a bill that orders state senators to fill secret ballots for future elections, to signal to the public whom they support. It’s seen as a throwback to the days before the direct election of Senators, and a boon to former State Senator Dan Liljenquist, who is challenging Orrin Harch in the Republican primary. And it’s indicative of something the tea party seems to like.
I’ll note the caveat that it’s hard to define what exactly the tea party is, since there’s no central leadership, and there are so many sub-groups claiming to be involved, including usually religious social conservatives, libertarians and opportunistic Republican office-holders and wannabe office-holders. If there’s a bottom-up approach, what’s true of the Tea Party in one region may not even apply in another. They may be ordinary citizens concerned about the debt in Springfield and members of the John Birch Society in Shelbyville.
One thing they have in common is that they do generally claim to be part of a movement of ordinary people, rather than career politicians. However, some of the things they advocate for have a consistent effect of empowering political hacks.
The opposition to the direct election of senators is one example. For a movement that thinks government screwed up over the last century, it makes sense to oppose a constitutional amendment passed in 1912 with the support of progressives. If the 17th Amendment were repealed, the senators would also have to pay more attention to their states, which fits the federalist leanings of the tea party.
However, when senators are elected by state legislators, the power of political insiders increases tremendously. State legislators are disproportionately likely to have been active in politics for a long time. And the new senators would have major incentives to protect the new status quo, lest they disappoint the legislatures went it comes time for reelection. Members of the House of Representatives would still be elected by the public, but they wouldn’t want to criticize the process of selecting senators, as this would reduce their chances of being appointed to the position in the future.
My home state of New York has an infamously dysfunctional state legislature, so I am viewing the situation from that lens. But I would rather have publicly elected senators, than have that decision be made by the likes of Sheldon Silver.
I have little respect for state legislators in general. And I think elections shouldn’t just be about the political party you support with a vote for a state legislator an indication that you want that party’s candidate to be your Senator, although this is a view that seems to be increasingly out of fashion with routine opinion pieces about how a vote for a candidate should be seen mostly as a vote for a political party. Other factors should matter, including the character and perceived competence of the candidate for statewide office. And I’d rather not have state legislators rewarding politicians who have done favors for them over the years.
Less people vote for state legislators than for candidates for statewide office. So giving state legislators the power removes the more casual voter from the equation. This helps the most liberal Democrats and the most conservative Republicans. Perhaps the tea party assumes that in this scenario, they’ll win. In this case, the roughly 50/50 stalemate the country’s had for the last few decades will be broken, in the conservatives’ favor.
One problem with the strategy is that it will return the days when Senate seats were literally for sale. William A. Clark bought a term as Senator from Montana, an act that helped the passage of the 17th Amendment. His legendary excuse was “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.” While some Republicans may like the idea of the Koch brothers being able to buy a Senate seat, what happens when it’s Warren Buffet or George Soros who presents the highest bid?
Many tea party members support term limits, a move that wouldn’t solve the problem of limiting the power of political hacks. For many politicians, the solution to term limits is to seek another political job. Former politicians also remain influential as advisers and lobbyists. And there usually aren’t term limits for the political staff, whose power increases when they’re the only ones with institutional knowledge.
The desire to lower the pay of congressmen and congressional staffers is another example of something the tea party supports that encourages political hackery. When he was a presidential candidate, Rick Perry tried to score points on this issue. An inevitable consequence is that many intelligent people who can get better paying jobs will choose those instead, if they won’t make enough money working for congress. You’ll be stuck with the true believers and ambitious people trying to make connections to exploit later. The latter group would be those who have decided on a long career in politics. Government would be less effective if the pool of applicants is reduced and the most talented and least emotionally invested are weeded out. But it seems to be something many of the tea party would like to see.