Advertisement - story continues below
“There is no line in the budget… for waste, fraud, and abuse…” that we can easily vote to eliminate. At a committee hearing in June 1981, former U.S. Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), may have been the first to publicly enunciate this truism. But New York’s former U.S. Senator, James L. Buckley (C-R-NY), brings us real solutions for reining in waste, excessive federal spending, and a national debt now exceeding $18 trillion, via his incisive new book, Saving Congress from Itself: Emancipating the States and Empowering their People (Encounter Books, New York, NY, 2014).
Buckley knows whereof he speaks. No living American has served at such lofty levels in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government than he. He was elected U.S. Senator from New York and appointed as Undersecretary of State by President Reagan. Buckley rounded out a distinguished career as Appellate Judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which is generally deemed to be the “second highest” court in the United States. He also served as President of the Congressionally-funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in the 1980s.
Senator Buckley writes about his frustrations as a federal legislator, where he witnessed how constituent groups and average citizens increasingly appealed to the federal government for many services that had been traditionally addressed and managed by state and local authorities. That disturbing trend has only expanded over the decades.
Advertisement - story continues below
Buckley describes a meeting convened by a new U.S. Senator in Connecticut. The politician not only suffered through constituents pleading for better local bus schedules and service; he appreciated their appeals and promised to assist them from his federal perch. Imagine U.S. Senators Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Everett Dirksen, John Kennedy, or even Lyndon Johnson agreeing that, yes, local bus schedules are the proper concern of a federal legislator!
Buckley points to the explosive growth in federal grants-in-aid over the last half century as being the expensive enabler of such thinking and waste. For 2015, these grants are scheduled to total $640.8 billion in federal spending, out of an overall budget of $3.1 trillion to $3.8 trillion yet to be approved. So grants-in-aid could exceed more than 20 percent (and at least one-sixth) of the federal budget. This area constitutes a ripe target, the elimination of which would eliminate this year’s federal deficit and put us on the road to retiring our national debt.
One of the primary problems with grants-in-aid is that, directed by federal legislators and bureaucrats distant from local, real-world problems, they are especially expensive for each level of government involved. So “free” federal grant money is offered to a state or locality, if the locals can pony up “just” 10 percent or 20 percent of the costs.
Advertisement – story continues below
One example that Judge Buckley provides involved creating a 9.4 mile “busway” with $459.4 million in federal funds, out of a total project cost of $572.7 million. The state tapped into six different federal programs to make this controversial program “work.” However, the federal grants-in-aid clearly prodded the state into funding a large public work that would marginally benefit a small number of commuters; truly pressing matters, such as repairs to crumbling bridges, highways, and other infrastructure, were de-prioritized.
Buckley cites Rhode Island as a clear exhibit of the benefits of liberation from one federal “partnership” and its concomitant regulation. Because of the state’s dire fiscal situation in 2009, the Feds granted a five-year waiver from Medicaid regulations in return for capping federal contributions to Rhode Island’s program. Until that decision, Medicaid program costs had escalated year after year, with the federal government reimbursing the state for over half of the costs; the Feds, not Rhode Island, decided what would be covered.
In the year prior to the waiver, costs grew 6.6 percent. In the first year of the waiver, cost inflation rapidly dropped to 1.1 percent, followed by declines of 2.3 percent and 3.1 percent, writes Senator Buckley. While Medicaid costs grew 7.5 percent a year nationally, Rhode Island provided improved health outcomes to Medicaid patients, at costs lower than those incurred in each of the five preceding years. The Obama administration has been persuaded to extend the waiver program through 2018.
Advertisement - story continues below
One form of federal grantmaking that has merited criticism, even during presidential debates, is earmarking. This practice permits U.S. Senators and Congressmen to “earmark” funds for pet projects and attach them to budget resolutions. Legislators support one another’s grant requests, fueling the impression that they have “clout” in Washington, while the budget and deficit swell. Senator Buckley’s exhibit A for ending this practice is the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” successfully advanced by the late U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) in 2005. The deal he brokered with his colleagues garnered $223 million from the U.S. taxpayers for the purposes of building a bridge from the Alaskan mainland to the sparsely populated island of Gravina, at a total cost of $398 million.
Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced an amendment to commit these funds to more urgent priorities, such as Hurricane Katrina relief, but his Senate colleagues disagreed and supported the Bridge to Nowhere by an 82 to 15 vote. However, as Buckley points out, earmarks had attracted such negative attention, especially due to “the Bridge,” that Congress ended the practice in 2010. But Senators and Congressman continue to pressure federal agencies for their pet projects, so funding for the Bridge continues under the Surface Transportation Act of 2011, even without earmarks. As Buckley’s friend, President Ronald Reagan, observed, the closest thing to eternal life in this world is a government program.
Senator Buckley understands this as well as anyone in public life, pointing to the “Iron Triangle” that has expanded so many government programs, including grants-in-aid. The triangle involves government bureaucrats working with interest groups who benefit from a federal program, with both groups then influencing Congress to continue appropriating more money and authorizing more power for agency decision makers.
Although highly principled, Buckley is a realist who proposes a five-to-six-year phaseout of federal grants-in-aid. This proposal would enable projects underway to be completed and would allow state and local officials to plan for reductions in federal funding, so they could prioritize what programs and initiatives should move forward, eventually with only their own funds.
Such revolutionary thinking may represent a policy ice bath for big spending progressives, while offering a welcoming, warm-oil massage for budget hawks, Tea Party fans, and those hankering for a return to Constitutional, properly limited government.
Judge Buckley’s book, at 102 pages, is a crisply written case, crammed with facts and trends about federal spending and operations. It is reminiscent of his brother Bill’s book, Four Reforms: A Program for the 70s (G. P. Putnam, 1973), wherein he made the case for dramatic changes to four domestic programs.
A phaseout of federal grants-in-aid, as presented by Senator Buckley, is a reform that tackles a huge American problem — our growing national debt and nagging annual deficits — and it deserves our serious consideration and that of Washington policy makers. With both houses firmly in Republican control, his plan should get an honest hearing, at least over the next two years. Searing in its simplicity, it calls upon U.S. Senators and Congressmen to surrender one of the prerogatives many have come to enjoy: the ability to direct wads of federal funds to their states and districts.
When weighing the old ways of doing federal business versus Buckley’s challenge, they would do well to recall one of the former Senator’s pithy, accurate observations: “Easy money is the enemy of prudent spending.” But isn’t a 15 to 20 percent reduction in federal spending worth some difficult votes?
The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by the owners of this website.