Today’s Question: Who does a U.S. senator represent?

Senators represent all the people of their state. Each state has two senators who are elected by citizens of their state.

But that was not originally the case, nor is it that simple, especially with so much money involved in winning a Senate campaign.

Cornell Clayton.

Senators were not always elected by voters. The 17th Amendment gave that power to the people in 1912 after decades of senators being selected by state legislators. The amendment was one of several – including the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th and 24th – spearheaded by progressives who shifted constitutional theory away from what the framers envisioned to one that better democratized American politics at the time, said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service.

At the time of the 17th Amendment, there was a lot of concern about corruption within state legislatures, Clayton said. After the Civil War, senatorial candidates were campaigning for state legislative candidates through “public canvass” in an attempt to get legislators who might elect them into the Senate into the legislature. The amendment was an attempt to hinder the corruption of state legislatures that were controlled by big-money interests like railroad and mining corporations.

“Progressives wanted to reform this primarily to remove some of the corruption of state legislatures in the control of the U.S. Senate, but also to deal with some of the dysfunction created by a closely divided electorate and closely held elections,” he said. “And that’s what the 17th Amendment represents. It’s about democratizing American politics.”

Travis Ridout.

Senators have to weigh the interests of the people in their state and the best interests for the country, said Travis Ridout, professor at Washington State University’s School of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs. The federal government has the ability to regulate gas prices, and state citizens would probably like that, but lowering prices might increase gas consumption and the ill consequences of climate change. These are the dilemmas senators can face.

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