Thursday, April 16, 2020

Book Review: 'Saving Congress from Itself: Emancipating the States and Empowering Their People' by James L. Buckley

Saving Congress from Itself by James L. Buckley

‘The people never part with their power’ – considering Federalism

Connecticut author James L Buckley earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Yale, served as a US Navy officer in WW II, practiced law, and has served as a US Senator, under secretary of state in the Reagan administration, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Germany, and judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columba Circuit. Now retired, he lives in Sharon, Connecticut. 

SAVING CONGRESS FROM ITSELF was originally published in 2014, but the book is so very pertinent during this contemporary climate that it deserves the attention of all readers now, especially with the continuing dialogue between the White House and the governors of the states as a primary COVID-19 topic.

The author magnetizes our attention in his opening comments – ‘The United States faces two major problems today: runaway spending that threatens to bankrupt us and a Congress that appears unable to deal with long-term problems of any consequence. A significant source of each is a category of federal expenditure that has somehow escaped the notice it deserves. I refer to the federal grants to state and local governments hat have soared from $24.1 billion in 1970 to an estimated $640.8 billion in 2015.’ Remember, when this book was written in 2014, these numbers and premises merited attention. Then transpose today’s situation into the facts on these pages and the result is a better understanding of the author’s reason for writing.

The outline of the content explains the book’s message very well: ’Saving Congress from Itself proposes a single reform: eliminate all federal grants-in-aid to state and local governments. This action would reduce federal spending by over $600 billion a year and have a profound effect on how we govern ourselves. The proliferation of federal grants-in-aid programs is of recent vintage: only about 100 such grants existed before Lyndon Johnson took office, and now they number more than 1,100. Eliminating grants to the states will result in enormous savings in federal and state administrative costs; free states to set their own priorities; and improve the design and implementation of programs now subsidized by Washington by eliminating federal regulations that attend the grants. In short, it will free states and their subdivisions to resume full responsibility for all activities that fall within their competence, such as education, welfare, and highway construction and maintenance. And because members of Congress spend major portions of their time creating grants and allocating funds assigned to them (think earmarks), eliminating grants will enable Congress to devote its time to responsibilities that are uniquely national in character.’

This is food for thought and contemplation as the struggles of today play out. Buckley’s writing is cogent, important, and relevant, deserving attention. 2020 is a unique year to consider his thoughts.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.