In 1911, a U.S. senator from Idaho supported a piece of legislation that would forever alter the course of American politics. Sen. William Borah, a Republican who served in the U.S. Senate for 33 years, supported a bill to allow for the direct election of senators by the voting public. The bill passed the Senate on June 12,1911, and the House of Representatives on May 13, 1912, nearly a year later. Borah aided the charge to urge the states to ratify what is now known as the 17th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Two years after being cleared by the Senate, the measure was ratified by the states and became law in April of 1913.
The amendment has become a talking point for conservatives and libertarians in their effort to find ways to put more restrictions on what they believe to be an out-of-control federal government that is too large and is spending too much. Some members of the Tea Party movement have called for its repeal as a way to give states more of a say in the affairs of the federal government. If the measure were to be repealed, senators would be chosen again by state legislatures, a process originally outlined in the U.S. Constitution.
It was at a Tea Party event on Saturday, May 1, that candidates for Congress discussed the issue in front of hundreds of people and several members of the media. Boise Tea Party Inc.'s spokesman Russ Smerz asked if candidates would be in favor of repealing the result of Borah's efforts. Many of the candidates - there were 10 of them on stage - gave mixed answers, but the two men in the state's hottest congressional race agreed that they would support repealing the amendment. Republicans Rep. Raul Labrador, a state representative from Eagle, and Vaughn Ward, a Marine reservist, both battling for the right to face Democratic incumbent Walt Minnick in Idaho's 1st Congressional District, said they would be in favor of giving the right to choose senators back to state legislators.
Should either Labrador or Ward prevail in the May 25 Republican primary election and then again in the general election in November against Minnick, they would be alone in favoring repeal among Idaho's congressional delegation. Neither of Idaho's senators, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, ranked among some of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate, support repealing the amendment. The state's lone Democrat, Minnick, also opposes the move. Rep. Mike Simpson, representing Idaho's 2nd Congressional District, was not available for comment.
Brad Hoaglun, spokesman for Risch, said that his boss has never supported the idea. Hoaglun said that each state legislature has a different makeup that, if allowed to choose senators, could choose opposite of the desires of the electorate. He pointed to a special election held in January, in which voters in Massachusetts elected Scott Brown, a Republican, to replace Ted Kennedy, one of the most-tenured Democrats in the U.S. Senate. Hoaglun speculated that had the 17th Amendment been repealed prior to that election, Democrats in the Senate would still own a 60-seat majority in the Senate. The state Legislature of Massachusetts is overwhelmingly made up of Democrats. Hoaglun noted that Democrats in Idaho might feel the same way as Republicans in Massachusetts. Democratic candidates, like Minnick, likely have a greater chance of being elected by popular vote than being chosen by the Idaho Legislature, where Republicans enjoy large majorities in both houses.
For Hoaglun and Risch, the amendment brings senators closer to the people. "If you want the will of the people to be done, allow the people to vote," said Hoaglun.
Lindsay Nothern, spokesman for Crapo, said that his boss's offices have taken calls supporting repeal, but the senator has never considered it. "There hasn't been a groundswell of support for it," said Nothern.
John Foster, campaign spokesman for Minnick, said that "Walt believes, as 'Lion of Idaho' William Borah believed, that the people should elect U.S. senators." Borah is commonly referred to as the "Lion of Idaho."
Labrador would not comment on why he supports repealing the amendment. Ward spokesman Ryan O'Barto is preparing his candidate’s response.