In this most recent edition of our ongoing interview series with influential political leaders, we have been given the opportunity to ask questions of one the country’s true elder statesmen, James L. Buckley. Judge Buckley is a former senator from New York. He also served in the Reagan administration as Undersecretary of State, and was later appointed by Ronald Reagan as a District Court of Appeals Judge for the District of Columbia. James Buckley is a distinguished author and expert on the subject of federalism and the US Constitution. We are incredibly humbled to have Judge Buckley answer some of our questions, and as always, we hope readers enjoy his responses as well as we have.
- Your most recent book, Saving Congress from Itself garnered a lot of positive feedback and attention when it was published in 2014. Have you seen any significant interest in pursuing block grants as a replacement for the current grants-in-aid programs?
- None on the scale I propose in my book. I have noticed, however, that several members of Congress propose that that be one with Medicaid grants, so the germ is there. For what it is worth, however, 2013 polling data suggests that conversion to block grants would be very popular with the public, to wit: Americans believe, by lopsided majorities, that state and local governments are best able to handle the following responsibilities: 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 administrators have taken over.
- You’ve spoken at length about the importance of federalism during various speeches and articles in the past. Other than the above proposal, what can be done to restore federalism and the balance of power?
- Americans now have a very low opinion of their central government. I hope some political leaders will begin making the point that unaccountable federal bureaucrats are too remote from the problems that affect most people, problems that can best be addressed by officials that are the closest to them and are most familiar with the facts.
- We at The Federalist Coalition are currently promoting legislation that creates federalism commissions in all 50 states. Such commissions have been cropping up in various states like Utah and Wisconsin. What do you think of Commissions/Committees on Federalism? Can states working together present a serious challenge to federal power or must the reform come from DC itself?
- Anything that will spread the federalism gospel will help. It would be great to have the states join in challenging federal controls in areas that are the states’ exclusive constitutional business. But I fear too many states have been seduced into welcoming “free” money from Washington even though all or large portions of it have come from their own taxpayers. It allows them to avoid increasing their own taxes to cover 100% of the cost of spending to meet state needs. States now receive about 30% of their revenues from the federal government. Block grants, of course, could continue those levels of transfers while allowing the states to spend the money more sensibly.
- How does one sell federalism and the Constitution to a self-proclaimed progressive?
- I argue in my book that its proposed reforms will achieve huge demonstrable efficiencies and savings while allowing individuals to transform themselves into socialist paradises.
- I have come across a lot of individuals who claim the banner of conservatism or libertarianism, and point to the 10th amendment as a means of compromise, specifically on contentious topics like abortion or the 2nd amendment. What is the proper use of the 10th amendment? Is it ok to use it this way?
- The Tenth Amendment clearly reserves such matters as abortion as the exclusive business of the states, and that is what Roe v. Wade should have held. The Second Amendment, however, protects “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.” No state may deprive them of those rights, but that doesn’t prevent states from imposing certain rules over how they are to be kept in the interest of public safety – but this is obviously a very fuzzy area as those rules can’t cross a line that would effectively negate the constitutional rights to “keep and bear.”
- In a 2000 CATO policy report, you discussed congressional term limits as a means of discouraging corruption in the legislative branch. Specifically you noted, “The temptation to bend a vote for whatever reason may yield to the better angels of their nature” if term limits were enacted. What do you think about similar restrictions on the judiciary?
- The mechanics and incentives of the two branches are quite different. Federal Judges were granted life tenure to free them from the corruption of bending votes in order to enhance the prospects of reelection.
- What about repealing the 17th amendment? Would this accomplish the same objective?
- Repealing the 17th would help, but since its adoption, there has been a vast change in the public understanding of what responsibilities the federal government may appropriately assume – an understanding that might never have been allowed to develop if the amendment had never been adopted.
- Who is your favorite founding father? Why?
- George Washington for all kinds of reasons. But for the design of our Constitution and the scholarship and judgements that went into it, I tip my hat to James Madison.
- What inspired you to get involved in politics?
- It was pure accident. I always had an interest in public policy, but never – ever – had any thought of becoming involved in politics or public service. The accident happened this way: In 1965, brother Bill decided to run for mayor of New York City knowing he couldn’t win and he insisted I assume the part time job of being his campaign manager even though I knew nothing about politics. That is how the leaders of NY’s Conservative Party learned of my existence. Three years later, while searching around for someone to do “jury-duty” as a token candidate for the U.S. Senate in a no-win race (which the CP had to do when the Republican candidate was too liberal) someone suggested my name. I accepted because I thought it would be an interesting experience; and because I couldn’t win, it wouldn’t take too much of my time. Because of such freebies as TV debates, etc., I did surprisingly well; and two years later, when students were protesting Vietnam by bombing colleges and the country seemed to going to hell, I yielded to my Boy Scout impulse to save the Republic by offering my services in the 1970 race for the Senate.
[As a member of the Conservative Party, Judge Buckley won the 1970 US Senate Race in New York, and is the last third party candidate to win a seat in the US congress.]
- Which Representative would you think is most likely to cane someone on the senate floor? (For the reader, the history behind this question can be found here)
- I know the history, but I don’t know the current members of the House well enough to venture an answer!
We’ll let Judge Buckley slide on question 10 this time…
We again thank Judge Buckley for taking the time to enlighten our readers. If you have not already done so, please consider becoming a member of The Federalist Coalition here. Judge Buckley’s book: Saving Congress From Itself, can be purchased online at Amazon.
Note: The Federalist Coalition is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization seeking to encourage politicians of all political persuasions to support a return to decentralized governance. We support any efforts and will applaud any political figure willing to support and communicate the principles of American Federalism.