BOISE - After a week and a half of heavy criticism on editorial pages around Idaho for the idea of repealing the 17th Amendment - direct election of U.S. senators - one of two GOP congressional candidates who backed the idea now says he never did.
“I’m not changing the position, I’m clarifying, would be a better way to put that,” said Vaughn Ward, who is running in the hotly contested GOP primary for a chance to challenge 1st District Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick. “I do not want to take away the power of people to elect senators,” Ward said Monday. “What I do support is amending the Constitution and adding a two-term limit for U.S. senators.”
Both Ward and his GOP primary opponent, state Rep. Raul Labrador, spoke in favor of repealing the 17th Amendment on statewide television on April 30, on the “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television. Both also answered “yes” in a Tea Party Boise survey that asked if they’d vote to repeal the amendment. The move is backed by some conservatives as a way to promote states’ rights by returning selection of U.S. senators to state legislatures.
The amendment was enacted in 1913 during the nation’s progressive era, after years of problems with legislative selection that included Senate seats going unfilled for years at a time because state legislatures couldn’t agree on candidates, and senators ejected from office for bribing state legislators to win their seats. Among the amendment’s backers was famed Idaho Sen. William E. Borah.
Labrador, in an interview last week, repeated his support for repealing the amendment, but said, “It really is a non-issue. The question is, if a bill came to Congress would I vote for it? Yes.” But Labrador said he thought it was unlikely ever to come up.
“The Senate, according to our founding fathers, was supposed to be responsive to the states,” Labrador said. “The House was supposed to be responsive to the people. That was the balance of powers.”
On “Idaho Reports,” Labrador said selection of senators by the Legislature would make senators “actually beholden to the people of Idaho.” He said, “We should be responding to the people of Idaho, and the Idaho Legislature would be a great way for us to respond to the people of Idaho, for any U.S. senator to do that.”
Ward immediately responded, “I feel the same way. I think that when you look at the erosion of states’ rights and the 10th Amendment, which embodies those ideas of states’ rights and personal freedoms, I think you can trace it back and look at the 17th Amendment.”
“Originally envisioned, the framers of the Constitution believed that the Senate was to be picked by our state legislature,” Ward said then, “and through the 17th Amendment they changed that, and I think that’s been part of the problem of eroding away states’ rights where that body, the Senate, is no longer beholden to it and tied to the state, and I think that’s what’s important, is when you look at how come states’ rights have been so abrogated, it’s because of things like the 17th Amendment that has taken away those rights from our states.”
Ward said Monday that there was little time to discuss his position on the program. “Quite frankly, that’s not a conversation you have in 30 seconds, it’s not a sound bite,” he said. He said his clarified position is that the 17th Amendment is the vehicle through which the Constitution should be amended to include term limits, and that that would support states’ rights and accountability. “It is about states’ rights, it is about the ability of we the people, but I think that is not done by taking away the ability of people to vote for senators,” Ward told The Spokesman-Review. “What I think it is, is that return of power to be term limits.”
Ward said he favors term limits not only for senators, but for House members and congressional staffers as well.
Jim Weatherby, Boise State University political scientist emeritus, said, “It’s changing the subject now by saying, ‘I’m clarifying it now and I was really talking about term limits.’”
Weatherby was the one who asked the question of both candidates on the April 30 “Idaho Reports” program, and he said Ward offered “a very clear statement of rationale for repeal of the 17th Amendment.” Since then, Weatherby noted, Idaho’s entire congressional delegation has come out against the move, and it’s been widely decried on the state’s newspaper editorial pages. Said Weatherby, “That does not play well in a populist state, where voters like to vote directly for all of their policy makers, from state controller to United States senator.”
Labrador’s campaign spokesman, Dennis Mansfield, said, “Raul hasn’t changed his position - he was very clear.” Mansfield said of Ward’s clarification, “It’s not what he said when he said it. … Everybody heard clearly what he said.”