In 2014, James L. Buckley, published a slender book, Saving Congress from Itself: Emancipating the States and Empowering Their People, in which he identifies a category of federal programs that have effectively nullified one of the Constitution’s most critical safeguards, namely the reservation to the states of all powers not expressly assigned to the federal government by that document. In it, he proposes a simple reform that would restore the Constitution’s design while saving major sums at both the federal and state levels. In writing his book, Buckley draws on his service at a high level in each branch of the federal government.
Today, Buckley has agreed to explain what prompted him to write the book and discuss a few lessons Americans today can take from the Founding Fathers.
In your book, Saving Congress From Itself, you identify a class of federal programs that you assert have effectively nullified the Constitution’s principle of federalism. What are those programs and how do they undermine the Constitution?
The programs that are the subject of my book are federal grants to the states for purposes that are the exclusive responsibilities of the states. Because the grants deal with concerns such as education and housing that are of immediate concern to constituents, members of Congress discovered that creating grants was the easiest way to rub elbows with constituents and gain the favorable headlines that win elections. Thus while they distributed just $24 billion in 1970, the year I was elected to the Senate, in 2015 their cost had soared to $641 billion, or one-sixth of total federal spending, and all for purposes that were none of Congress’s business. And because they come with the most detailed instructions on how the grants are to be used, they have in fundamental ways converted the states into administrators of programs designed in Washington by bureaucrats that are unaccountable to the states’ citizens.
Your book is concerned with returning to the theories and concepts that our country’s founders wrote into the Constitution more than 200 years ago. The world today, however, is very different from what it was at our country’s founding. Why should today’s Americans be disturbed by the federal government’s assumption of these new responsibilities?
Because while times may have changed, human nature has not. From their study of the history of free societies, the Constitution’s architects understood that the drive to accumulate power, whether by an individual despot or a parliamentary majority, was the historic enemy of individual freedom. It therefore incorporates two safeguards: its system of separation of powers with its checks and balances and the principle of federalism. Furthermore, federalism continues to make practical sense. Our states vary enormously, and state governments are in the best position to meet their citizens needs in all matters that do not require uniform national standards.
Your book makes the constitutional case, which may or may not impress the public. Are there other, non-constitutional reasons why it should adopt your proposed reform?
My book details the host of truly enormous monetary and institutional costs that the programs impose at both the federal and state levels. Among many other things they distort state priorities, prevent state officials from applying common sense and local knowledge in securing the best value for the money spent, and undermine accountability because state officials bound by federal regulations can’t be held responsible for the costs and failures of the projects they manage. At the federal level, of course there is the cost of administering the programs which, in 2015, came to an estimated $64 billion. But the most significant costs to our nation is the diversion of congressional attention from the critical issues that only Congress can address. Studies confirm that its members spend major portions of their time attending to constituent concerns that are better handled by state and local officials while neglecting matters like, immigration, that only Congress can address.
Your book may make a very good case. But if, as you say, we have all these grants programs because members of Congress have discovered that they provide them with the easiest way to win votes and reelection, as a practical matter is there any hope that your reform can be adopted?
The problem is that the public is totally unaware of the huge damage being done by those programs, which is why it is so important that it be made aware of their true costs as detailed in my book. If it is, my proposal will find major support. Confidence in the federal government is at an all-time low, and our people still understand the virtues of the Constitution’s allocation of governmental responsibilities even if they are unaware of it. According to 2013 polling data, today’s Americans believe that state and local governments are best able to handle the following responsibilities by the indicated percentages: housing (by 82% of those polled), transportation (78%), education (75%), and welfare (69%). Those are precisely the kinds of responsibilities that the Constitution has reserved to the states, the kinds that federal agencies have taken over.