Liberating the States and Their People from Federal Grants: A Conversation with James Buckley

with James L. Buckley

Now comes the great James Buckley to Liberty Law Talk to discuss his new book Saving Congress from Itself that argues federal grants-in-aid exemplify the obstacles currently posed to constitutional government. The key to our constitutional health must involve, Buckley declares, the elimination of these programs. The issue is more than just the overwhelming spending, which has soared from $24.1 billion in 1970 to approximately $640.8 billion in 2015. Buckley and I also discuss the obvious constitutional problems, namely, that through the so-called spending power Congress can impose laws on states that it otherwise possesses no constitutional authority to enact and enforce.

As Michael Greve has consistently noted in this space, state governments find it virtually impossible to leave federal grant money on the table, strings attached notwithstanding. Their loss, ultimately, is the ability of their citizens to freely govern themselves. However, the loss of self government is both local and national, as members of Congress divert their attention from the more pressing objectives of national government. They find it easier and more advantageous to manage the federal government on behalf of local concerns and interests that are served by grant programs.

The conceit of federal spending in the form of grants to states and localities is that Congress and federal agencies are better positioned to shape local priorities than the actual authorities elected for that very purpose. In this manner, centralization–the central mistake of the twentieth century–and its belief in experts ruling with and through knowledge continues unabated. Buckley, as the book’s subtitle states, has a plan to emancipate the states. The prescription we discuss is to end federal grants immediately, saving billions of dollars and, most significantly, restoring the Congress to its proper remit of deliberating national problems and issues in place of funding sidewalk construction in Sharon, Connecticut (Mr. Buckley’s hometown) on behalf of a federal anti-obesity initiative for children.