WASHINGTON — In 2010, Plymouth, Connecticut, was awarded $430,000 for widening sidewalks and related matters near two schools. This money was a portion of the $612 million Congress authorized for five years of the federal Safe Routes to School program intended to fight childhood obesity by encouraging children to burn calories by walking or biking to school. Really.
Fortunately, Plymouth is near Sharon, Connecticut, home of the Buckley family, whose members, when their gimlet eyes notice nonsense, become elegantly polemical. So, Congress’ Safe Routes silliness inadvertently did something excellent. It helped to provoke James Buckley to write a slender book that, if heeded, would substantially improve American governance.
Buckley’s late brother Bill, when asked how he found topics for three columns a week, said the world irritated him at least that often. James, 91, who has now been constructively annoyed by Congress, was a U.S. senator (1971-77), then an undersecretary of state, then a judge on the nation’s second-most important court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Now, with his “Saving Congress from Itself: Emancipating the States and Empowering Their People,” he continues the family tradition of standing athwart destructive tendencies shouting “Stop!”
Buckley proposes ending federal grants to state and local governments, a category of spending that has ballooned from $24.1 billion in 1970 to an estimated $640.8 billion in fiscal 2015. Devising such spending, Buckley says, absorbs much of Congress’ time, diverting it from “core national responsibilities” and toward concerns that are properly — he says constitutionally — the concerns of the states.
Courts, however, have construed the “general welfare” language of the Constitution’s Spending Clause (taxes may be raised “to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare”) as permitting Congress to spend on anything, including to “induce” (the Supreme Court’s word) states to accept federal preferences about state responsibilities. In 1987, the Supreme Court said it is “question[able] whether ‘general welfare’ is a judicially enforceable restriction at all.”
So congressional spending is limited only by Congress’ self-restraint, or that of state and local governments that are free to reject the spending and the administrative costs that come with it, and the federal pre-emption of lower governments’ latitude in setting priorities. By 2010, Buckley says, the more than 1,100 grant-in-aid programs available to states and/or localities constituted 17 percent of the federal budget, the third largest spending category after entitlements and defense.
But “free” money can be expensive. Washington used $455 million to induce Connecticut to provide the remaining $112 million needed for an unneeded 9.4-mile busway linking New Britain and Hartford, which were already linked by bus service — and $112 million was diverted from more crucial state needs. Buckley explains:
“Anyone who has ever eaten lunch on an expense account will understand the perverse incentives generated when a person is given access to funds that may only be used for a particular purpose. … Organizations, governments included, will act in the same way. When someone else picks up the check, they consume goods and services inefficiently.”
The political class, however, uses grants-in-aid to purchase the votes of citizens who see only the large sums of federal money, not the distortions of state and local decisions. Having lived long and seen much, Buckley knows how unlikely it is that members of Congress will embrace his idea, absent an ancillary reform: term limits.
During the 19th century, Buckley says, when the Senate actually earned the sobriquet “world’s greatest deliberative body,” fewer than 10 percent of the senators “who served the equivalent of at least one term went on to serve more than two.” Of the three antebellum giants — Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster — only Webster served the equivalent of three full terms. “This,” Buckley writes, “suggests that a senator is able to make a significant contribution to his country’s welfare within the 12-year limit that I would place on senatorial service.”
Buckley will soon have a term-limits ally less than half his age. Ben Sasse, 42, Nebraska’s senator-elect, plans to introduce a constitutional amendment limiting House and Senate members to four and two terms, respectively. Will legislators addicted to purchasing incumbency with grants-in-aid submit to the states for ratification an amendment that would limit their tenure in office? State legislatures are responsive to public support for term limits, and are composed of politicians eager to open federal offices to their ascent.
Congress can be bludgeoned by a public aroused on behalf of term limits. And when purged of careerism, Congress can cure its addiction to grants-in-aid and other bad habits. George Will is a Washington Post columnist.