Maryland lawmakers want — finally — to ratify the 17th Amendment

Two Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis want to spur a debate about the influence of money in politics and send a rebuke to tea party leaders by having the General Assembly ratify the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which required that U.S. senators be elected directly by voters instead of by state legislatures.

The amendment became the law of the land in 1913 after three-quarters of the states approved it. Maryland was not one of them.

Attacking the amendment has become a cause among some conservatives who believe it transferred too much influence from the states to Washington.

It is the only constitutional amendment that Maryland has not approved — though the Old Line State immediately made use of it. In a special election held in 1913, Maryland voters were the first to pick their U.S. senator.

"It's time for all friends of the 17th Amendment to stand up and be counted," said state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a constitutional law professor who plans to introduce legislation this week to ratify the amendment.

Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, says the amendment is his "favorite" because it was passed as a way of curbing corporate influence in politics. He says it is "under attack" today by conservatives, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican seeking his party's nomination for president.

Raskin sees parallels between the fight mounted 100 years ago by progressives who pushed the amendment as a way of preventing big businesses from buying senators through their state legislators and today's debate about the influence of corporate money in political campaigns.

"We are dealing with a lot of the same issues that come out of mixing money and politics," Raskin said. "We should reaffirm the work of our forebears who prevailed over corporations."

In a 1906 editorial, The Baltimore Sun argued that direct election of senators would reduce "charges of treachery and double dealing, and the frequent use of money in electing Senators under the present system."

Del. Dan K. Morhaim, sponsor of the measure in the House of Delegates, has another reason to push for ratification: attention to detail. "Some people will say [passage] is meaningless," Morhaim said. "I don't think it is frivolous to show attention to detail. If there is something we've overlooked, we ought to fix it."

Ratification by Maryland would have no substantive effect. The amendment passed Congress in 1912, and by May 1913, the required three-quarters of state legislatures had approved it.

Maryland's failure to act appears to be due to a quirk in timing. The General Assembly met in 1912 and 1914, but not in 1913, according to research by the Department of Legislative Services.

The state was the first to hold a contested election for the U.S. Senate. In November 1913, Marylanders selected Blair Lee, a Democrat, by a "staggering plurality," according to an article in The Sun at the time.

The distinction is part of Lee family lore. "We brag about it," said Blair Lee IV, a developer and conservative political columnist who is the senator's great-grandson and one of Raskin's constituents.

Nevertheless, Lee is not enthusiastic about the modern push for ratification. "Going back and refighting the 17th Amendment and trying to make an issue out of it? Give me a break," he said.

Ratification has been attempted here before. State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican who is running for Congress this year, introduced a similar measure in 2009. The bill stalled in committee after a hearing.

Jacobs, who represents Harford and Cecil counties, said she has developed "mixed feelings" about the legislation after reading emails from constituents who did not support it, though she declined to elaborate.

Delaware lawmakers ratified the amendment in 2010.

In recent years, some conservatives have pushed for repeal of the amendment, saying it upset a careful balance of power between the federal government and the states. They point to Federalist No. 62, by James Madison, who wrote that the U.S. Senate should be "an agency" for the states within the new national government and create a "convenient link" between local and federal lawmakers.

Then-U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat, took up the cause in 2004, saying the direct election of senators has "allowed Washington's special interests to call the shots." Miller said state governments "aided in their own collective suicide" by ratifying the amendment in 1913.

"Can you imagine those dreadful unfunded mandates being put on the states … if senators were still chosen by and responsible to the state legislatures?" Miller said on the Senate floor. "Make no mistake about it, it is the special-interest groups and their fundraising power that elect senators."

Though it has cropped up as a national issue, there appears to be little passion in Maryland for repealing the 17th Amendment. "It is not on our radar," said Del. Michael Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican who heads the 22-member tea party caucus in the House of Delegates.

U.S. senators, he said, should instead be required to address the General Assembly annually and justify their votes, particularly when they require the states to expand programs but don't provide money to do so. "Come before us and explain," Smigiel said.

But Smigiel said repeal could have an effect in Annapolis that he sees as positive.

"We'd have quicker turnover of the leaders in the legislature," he said, "because they'd appoint themselves" to go to Washington.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.