Bad Senate ideas: provincial appointment

(This may or may not turn out to be a regular series, depending on how long the current infatuation with Senate ponderings lasts.)

So Canadians are talking about reforming or even (gasp!) abolishing the Senate. Abolishing the Senate is constitutionally difficult, but analytically pretty simple: we wouldn’t have a Senate anymore, and the House of Commons and Crown would constitute the Canadian Parliament[1].

With either abolition or reform, we have to ask what the effects would be, and whether the means would serve the intended ends.

So in that spirit (and because I just read an interesting paper about it) let’s all agree that as bad as having the Prime Minister appoint Senators is, having the provinces appoint them would be worse.

“What the eff?” you say. “Who’s even advocating that?” Well, nobody important that I can see at the moment. (Though parts of this Tom Flanagan piece could be read that way.) But this was a common argument by provinces in the 1970s, and god knows bad ideas never really go away.

And it’s a bad idea not because I don’t like it, but because it fails to achieve its stated goal: increasing sub-national control over the national government. In fact, history shows it does the opposite.

Before 1913, the US Senate was appointed by state legislatures. This was explicitly intended to give the states control over the President, and not incidentally the Supreme Court. Then, after decades of campaigning, in just 11 months the Congress and two-thirds of the states passed the 17th amendment to require directly elected Senators.

A new paper from David Schleicher of George Mason University explains why states voted to disempower themselves. Schleicher argues that the role of national political parties in the US made the Framers’ conception of federalism unworkable, and in fact put state politics at the mercy of national politics–the exact opposite of what the founders intended.

Why? It’s pretty simple: state elections became “nationalized”, with voters expected to elect state representatives based on which party’s senators they would send to Washington. This had already begun before the Civil War, but by the 1870s through the 1900s it became more and more intense. Schleicher cites an 1894 editorial in the Chicago Tribune which explicitly argued that it was wrong for the state’s voters to make their decision based on state issues–national politics was what mattered:

Do these Democratic State Senators think the voters can be called off from the national issues involved in the direct election of Representatives and the indirect election of a Senator to consider only local questions. That they will drop the Wilson bill and devote their attention to the establishment of a Police Board in Chicago? That