Thursday, 27 February 2003

Repealing the 17th Amendment

Eugene Volokh today talks about the 17th Amendment (while Jacob T. Levy links to a September post of his discussing the same topic). The 17th Amendment, adopted 80 years ago, changed the system for election of senators to the current system of popular election; originally, they were elected by the state legislatures (Article I, Section 3, Paragraph 1). The indirect election of Senators was primarily designed to give the states direct input in federal policymaking (see, for example, Federalist 62), and thus in some sense to reinforce federalism by acting as a check on the House of Representatives deciding to exceed the enumerated powers of Congress. (Some argue that the 17th Amendment, rather than the 16th, was the true enabler for big government.)

Of course, there are other issues at work that prevented the Senate from being an effective bulwark on federal power (even before the 17th Amendment); the principal-agent problem loomed large, with the interests of senators not necessarily coinciding with the state legislatures that chose them. One reason why the German Bundesrat works and persists as a powerful, indirectly elected chamber is that its members are true agents of the Land's parliament; by contrast, the pre-17th Senate had very weak principal-agent links (in order to promote institutional stability, another goal of the Senate's design), although whether the Framers intended it that way is unclear.

Jacob writes:

Even if the original 1787 apparatus were clearly better as a matter of constitutional engineering than the current mechanism, it might have been too politically fragile. If it had not bent with the 17th amendment, it might have broken later say, during the Terrible Twenties and Thirties when constitutional democracies were swept away by populist-authoritarianism in much of the world, and we had Longs, Coughlins, and Roosevelts of our own. A defense of the 17th along these lines is kind of like a defense of the 1937 "switch in time that saved nine" by the Supreme Court, not because the switch was constitutionally correct, but because it did manage to "save nine"-- that is, to save substantial judicial independence from a court packing precedent that would have left us with New Deal constitutional revisionism and with a cowed, subservient judiciary and with a precedent for presidents changing the constitutional rules whenever they weren't getting their way.

On balance, I think that the 17th Amendment had little effect in the long term. By the time of its passage, over half the states already had a de facto system for electing senators by popular vote; doubtless most other states would have followed suit eventually. In other words, the 17th is the result of a trend that was taking place anyway, codifying (and legitimating) the Progressivist change that was already on its way to being implemented nationwide. (And, among those changes, it was probably the least harmful procedural change that could have been institutionalized in the Constitution; far more harmful would have been a constitutionally-blessed role for parties as public utilities or a mandate for open primary elections. Of course, in other realms, the 18th was orders of magnitude worse, and also the result of Progressivist do-gooderism.) Ultimately the 17th was no more than a small chink in the armor of federalism, but if the Senate had remained a truly appointed body into the 1930s I agree its legitimacy would have been called into serious question — and perhaps its powers would have been evicerated by a Supreme Court more interested in preserving Marbury v. Madison and judicial review than federalism.

Incidentally, the relative design of the European Council of Ministers and the European Parliament is similar to that of the Bundesrat and Bundestag, although the EU institutions may be the sole current example of asymmetrical bicameralism where the upper chamber is vastly more powerful than the lower; however, it is telling that the phrase “democratic deficit” is virtually synonymous with the EU.

Revealing the man behind the curtain

Steven Den Beste has been one of the more strident pro-war voices in recent months. Today he (along with Josh Chafetz at OxBlog) thinks the administration has finally revealed the true motivation behind the Iraqi phase of the War on Terror:

The answer is that I do believe they were thinking along these lines [using Iraq to prod along regional regime change] all along, but that for them to go public with it back then would have led to serious grief by making clear to such stalwarts as Saudi Arabia just what we really intended. I'm happy, therefore, that we've reached the point where we no longer think we require the good wishes of the Sauds, and thus Bush has indeed publicly stated the real goal for this war, and the only way in the long run we can really win it: liberalization of the Arabs. And, as mentioned above, Iraq will be used to create an example in the [M]iddle East of how it's done, and most of that process will be financed by sales of Iraq's oil.

Is this a realistic hope? Perhaps. Among Middle Eastern states, there are basically four major candidate states for democratization:

  • Egypt: Like Iraq, it has a large middle class. Unlike Iraq, Hosni Mubarak isn't a murderous dictator, even though the state security services do have their ruthless streak. Egypt also has a more radicalized Islamic population than Iraq.

  • Iran: Unlike Egypt and Iraq, Iran is governed by a quasi-democratic theocracy rather than a dictator.

  • Iraq

  • Pakistan: Somewhere on the borders of democracy, dictatorship and anarchy. Unlike the three other states, has at least some experience with democratic institutions, and some of those institutions persist under the Musharraf regime.

In all the cases except Iraq, there is a realistic possibility of further democratization from within. The problem of succession in Egypt may lead Mubarak to liberalize the political system. The Iranian government is generally believed to be on the verge of collapse, with many clerics becoming tired of the secular job of running the country; the collapse of the Iraqi regime may be the triggering event for regime change in Iran too. As for Pakistan, it is unclear how sincere the Musharraf regime is about a return to democracy, but the persistence of independent institutions (such as the judiciary) is encouraging.

So, if the goal is to precipitate a democratic revolution in the Middle East, Iraq is probably the most suitable target. Of course, this leads to some legitimate questions:

  1. Is precipitating regime change a legitimate end of U.S. foreign policy? Probably, if there is no reasonable prospect of internal reform or change. Unlike the communist dictatorships of central and eastern Europe, there is no external actor directly propping up the Iraqi regime; thus we cannot expect a homegrown democratic revolution. In the particular case of Iraq, one can make a legitimate argument that we owe the Iraqi people for the West's role supporting the Ba'athist regime (including our own role prior to the first Gulf War).

  2. Can regime change in Iraq lead to change elsewhere? Many political leaders in the Middle East (and some scholars in the western world) believe that Muslims are incapable of operating a democratic regime. While Turkey and Bangladesh are useful counterexamples, neither of these states are Arab. A successful democracy in Iraq may lead citizens other states (including the Palestinians) to reconsider why their countries are not democratic.

  3. Are there any better options? At this point, probably not. In 1991, perhaps we could have “marched on Baghdad,” but such an attack probably would have led to the collapse of the coalition and would have been about as popular worldwide as the current plans for war. In 1998, we may have had an opportunity to walk away from the sanctions regime; however, that would have consolidated Saddam's power and freed him even more to develop weapons of mass destruction. Today, we have few choices: back down (and destroy our own credibility and that of the United Nations), commit ourselves to stationing a large permanent force in the region (which would be required by any plan to continue inspections), or go to war now. Realistically, those are the only three options for the foreseeable future, barring an unexpected event like the whole Hussein family being killed in some accident, along with the rest of the senior Ba'ath Party leadership.

  4. Is this approach likely to succeed? It largely depends on the long-term commitment of the United States and its allies. The international community is going to have to devote several years to reconstruction (in the Civil War sense) in Iraq before full sovereignty can be restored, although some degree of “home rule” will be essential from the start. A half-hearted commitment, or a withdrawal of U.S. support by the next administration if Bush loses in 2004, is likely to lead to disaster.

At this point, it is almost certain that there will be war (barring a successful Iraqi coup in the next week). We can only hope the war will be brief and that few will die. But if the war leads to a free and democratic Iraq it will have been a worthy and just war.

Bill Hobbs has some similar thoughts (which I only just noticed).