When it comes to solutions on how to fix the current political dilemmas in America, there are plenty out there to choose. The trouble with them starts when assessing their practicality and realistic outlook on the situation.
In his book Saving Congress from Itself: Emancipating the States and Empowering the People, former U.S. Senator James L. Buckley offers his own remedy: The elimination of federal grants,
Drawing from his own experience in D.C. as a senator and judge, his concise and dispassionate examination of the country’s political and financial future offers both a unique and useful perspective. Sadly, the means of implementing his solution is Congress, rather than nullification and anti-commandeering as advocated by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
A relatively short and easy read, Buckley argues that the way in which to prevent a financial collapse and end federal intrusion into state affairs is by eliminating federal grants, which have ballooned from $640 billion in 2015 compared to $24 billion in 1970.
The book breaks down into three main sections that cover how we got to the situation we’re in, the effects of it at the local level, and the changes that need to happen before the solution can be implemented.
For a former politician, Buckley’s understanding of the Constitution is quite sound. In his introduction, he correctly observes how the most ordinary day-to-day activities in cities and states are negatively affected by federal control through federal grants and how this runs counter to what the Founders intended. He also refutes the common misconception that the Bill of Rights infers a limited list of liberties, rather than the Constitution being a list of limited federal powers.
Quoting Madison in Federalist 51, Buckley explains the significance of this point. The inherent tension between the states and the federal government, he writes, protect the peoples’ liberties.
All of this is undermined through federal grant programs, which Buckley writes, “deprive state and local officials of the ability to meet their own responsibilities in their own ways and undermine their citizens’ ability to ensure that their taxes will be used to meet local priorities rather than those of distant bureaucrats.”
While these grants violate the Tenth Amendment, at least in spirit, Buckley points out that this undermining of federalism didn’t occur overnight, but through a long sordid history of Supreme Court rulings that enabled the feds by reinterpreting the Spending Clause, which gives the feds the authority to “to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.”
As a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Buckley’s solution doesn’t involve the Supreme Court, and for good reason. He places a great deal of culpability at their feet in the initial chapters of the book recounting the history of Supreme Court rulings concerning the Spending Clause and the Interstate Commerce Clause. In the 1937 case of Steward Machine Co. v. Davis, the court ruled that the feds could provide states with funds to implement programs that Congress itself had no power to write into law.”
Over time, the feds offered more grants to the states. Eager for free money, the states accepted them. Finally, in 1987, it got to the point where the court stated in South Dakota v. Dole that the feds could “induce” states into accepting federal directives that normally would fall within the constitutional authority of the state.
In that ruling, the court also said that it was “question[able] whether ‘general welfare’ is a judicially enforceable restriction at all.”
These in-grant-aid programs accelerated, Buckley writes, during Johnson’s Great Society; in 1960, there were 132 programs, but by 1970 there were 530. This has led to a situation that Peter Drucker describes in his essay “Sickness of Government” as “administrative incompetence.”
In more recent times, Buckley describes how the Department of Education’s Race to the Top grant program in 2009 led to the disaster that is Common Core, educational standards state are now removing only after adopting them. The reason for their initial adoption, Buckley says, was due to pressure from the feds to adopt standards favored by D.C. and stipulations that rewarded States who adopted new educational standards by August 2010. Since Common Core was released first in June 2010, states were quick to adopt them in the hope of securing a larger slice of the $4.35 billion in grant money.
While the states are free to reject these grants, the temptation is simply too great.
“If a state accepts the offer, it is bound by the regulations that come with the money,” Buckley writes. “The states are free to decline the subsidies, but experience has demonstrated that ‘free’ money is extraordinarily hard to refuse, however onerous the attached conditions.”
The purpose of the Tenth Amendment was to protect the authority of the states which they had not delegated to the feds. Through fed grants, federal bureaucracies can impose federal regulations on the states, not by laws, but by making them an offer they can’t refuse.
The fly in the ointment is that it has led to an unsustainable rate of spending. Within 15 years, he writes, the Medicare trust fund will be depleted and in 18 years the Social Security fund will join it. There are also the costs for feds and the states to manage the grants; in 2010, the feds spent $61 billion just managing them.
Accountability also disappears. If a project goes south or criticism is raised by local citizens, the states can blame federal regulations, and if the project succeeds, the House representatives who sponsored the grant program can take credit.
Not only that, Buckley writes, but ironically the grants cause many projects to cost the state more than moving ahead without it. With grants like an expense account, there is have an incentive to spend as much as allowed, rather what was necessary.
Worse yet, these grants also make it hard for the states to introduce their own reforms that contradict federal standards. For example, states attempting to lower their prison populations by abolishing minimum sentencing and reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders can be deterred by Aimee’s Law, which can penalize states by withholding law enforcement grant money if a person convicted of a crime in their state who re-offends in another did not receive a sentencing equal to the average national sentencing for the same crime.
While Buckley is critical of the political situation, he avoids pandering to partisan politics or using inflammatory rhetoric to make his point. When he cites examples of federal abuse through the grant programs, it is in a matter-of-factly tone that eschews finger-pointing. As he sees it, there’s plenty of blame to go around in both parties.
His time in the U.S. Senate has also made him empathetic to lawmakers. Sections of the book reflect on his hectic schedule, one which he says has only gotten worse for current senators, which makes it impossible for them to study and critique legislation they have to vote on. (he includes a sample schedule to give readers an idea). Yet at the same time he does not excuse their actions. Rather, he places them within context. They are not caricatures who secretly plot the downfall of America, but rational actors who respond to incentives and the reality on the ground. This is where Buckley’s sense of practicality comes in. He is not interested in simply complaining, but acknowledges challenges that have to be addressed.
“When members of Congress do manage to enact a complex piece of legislation, they no longer have the time or patience to attend to all the minutiae that responsible legislation requires. Instead, they pass the messy details along to federal agencies, which spin out the regulations that will the law shape. So no one, including those who drafted the laws, really knows how their handiwork will affect the real world until the regulations have been issued.”
At the same time, Buckley provides examples from his life as a private citizen in a small Connecticut community of how far the feds have intruded into average life. In addition to two significant stories detailing how the community ultimately had to receive the blessing of a federal agency to renovate a bridge.
Reading the local newspaper, Buckley writes how shocked he was to find how many there were for his area.
I soon found it filled with reports of federal grants in support of an astonishing variety of civic purposes. To cite just a few, they included financing for an art center honoring Katherine Hepburn, the grant of $1.5 million of federal highway trust funds to restore a vandalized train station….funds for the purchase of a farm’s development rights in order to preserve a town’s rural character….payment of eight percent of the cost of replacing a one-lane bridge connecting two small communities a dozen miles from my home, and a granting for widening of sidewalks bordering two streets leading to a local school.”
He lists other inane federal grants available, including $65 million for New York and New Jersey to advertise they were good places for businesses – a message he rightly mocks.
Getting rid of these grants, Buckley writes, will not be easy. Congress use them for easy reelection, federal bureaucrats depend on them for a job, and local politicians rely on them to pay for projects they can’t afford through their own state budget.
The way to do this, he said, is by converting all grants into no-strings-attached block grants. They would then be phased out in five or six years. The result, Buckley believes, would be a reduction of the federal budget by $700 billion annually.
Admitting that his proposal will earn the ire of many, he writes hopefully that the American people will see the validity of his recommendations, as they have also grown tired of meddling and intrusion.
Two other reforms he argues for is term limits and campaign finance reform removing limitations on donations to candidates. Although the former proposal seems too akin to the ill-conceived “throw the bums out” mantra, his personal experience winning election as a third party candidate gives him credibility when he attacks the idea that “money can buy elections.” He also criticizes the idea of disclosing political donations, a practice that has already led to retaliation and reprisals against individuals.
Unfortunately, his recommendations rely on the very people to fix these problems who caused them in the first place. At the end of the introduction, he writes that his solution requires “no more than that members of Congress honor the principles of federalism that is embedded in the Constitution they pledged to defend.”
As Jefferson and Madison wrote, when Congress violates its constitutional authority, they can’t be expected to restore it. Nor the courts. When this happened, the states were duty bound to restrain the feds through nullification or anti-commandeering.
In Saving Congress from Itself: Emancipating the States and Empowering the People, Buckley attempts to give Americans a feasible way to get their freedom back and prevent a financial disaster that is currently looming over them. In describing the causes and their effects, Buckley succeeds. His intentions are genuine, and he understands the Tenth Amendment well. The book is worth reading on those two points alone.
If only the book’s solution was what what Jefferson and Madison advocated back in 1798. It worked back then, and it still works today.
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