Politics & Policy

Living Free with Jim Buckley

The former senator finds Congress to have become more a treadmill than a deliberative body.

‘We won’t be able to bring our expanding administrative state under control and avoid national bankruptcy until the American people insist that we do so,” Senator Jim Buckley, beloved brother of the founder of National Review, writes in his book Freedom at Risk: Reflections on Politics, Liberty, and the State. “This requires,” he continues, “that our citizens rediscover that the price of cradle-to-grave security is the ultimate erosion of their freedoms. This is the hard lesson that history has to teach.” As we approach the 2012 presidential election, Senator Buckley discusses what’s at stake and lessons learned from a lifetime of service, with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You’ve served in all three branches of government. Do you have a favorite?

JAMES L. BUCKLEY: Because my primary interest has been in the area of public policy, the Senate was my favorite. But Congress has taken on so many concerns beyond those assigned to the federal government by the Constitution that the Senate has been converted from a deliberative body to a treadmill that allows virtually no time for the kind of study and thought that responsible legislation requires. Given my interests, though, there could have been no more glorious place to be than the Senate a hundred years or so ago.

I should note that when I served as a judge, I recognized that public policy was Congress’s responsibility, not mine.

LOPEZ: How alarmed are you about the state of religious liberty in the United States today?

BUCKLEY: The administration’s refusal to honor the First Amendment rights of Catholics and Catholic institutions with respect to paying for other people’s contraception is a bad sign.

LOPEZ: Is this election more important than others you’ve lived through?

BUCKLEY: I believe this is the most important election in my almost-90-year lifetime. If President Obama wins, we will be transformed into a social-welfare state in which Washington gives all the orders and our individual autonomies will be increasingly chipped away. It will be almost impossible to recover the energy and enterprise that have made us exceptional.

LOPEZ: Has your faith made a difference in your public service? In life?

BUCKLEY: A yes to both. With respect to the first, I have taken my oaths of office seriously — the threat of hellfire is quite an incentive to do so. Among other things, it has caused me to faithfully enforce laws as a judge that I voted against as hideously misguided when I was a senator.

LOPEZ: Was it ever hard for you to be a Catholic in public life?

BUCKLEY: Not if you take your religion seriously.

LOPEZ: Do any rising stars in politics impress you?

BUCKLEY: Yes, the standard ones: Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio.

LOPEZ: How does claiming “that morality and law do not or should not mix fl[y] in the face of everything we know about American history,” as you write in Freedom at Risk?

BUCKLEY: Yes, there are lots of hard calls in a country’s life — such as the support of despots who were critical allies in the Cold War. But how, for example, does one describe the civil-rights laws of the 1960s other than as the harnessing of the force of law in support of a moral objective? There are countless other examples.

LOPEZ: Why did you introduce the Human Life Amendment?

BUCKLEY: It was a simple matter of correcting a hideous mistake by the Supreme Court. Justice Blackmun stated in his Roe v. Wade opinion that we didn’t know when life begins. So my proposed amendment invoked biology to establish that a unique human life begins at conception. We used to have a prejudice against taking innocent life.

LOPEZ: When did the Senate cease to be “the world’s greatest deliberative body”?

BUCKLEY: When Congress assumed so many responsibilities that properly belonged to the states that senators no longer had the time to thoroughly study proposed legislation, attend extended floor debates about its merits, and to discuss it informally with their colleagues. When did all that occur? There is a Senate rule that forbids committees from meeting while there is action on the floor. Today, that rule is routinely suspended at the beginning of each day the Senate is in session so that senators may attend to their committee work rather than be exposed to what is happening on the floor. I once asked the Senate parliamentarian when that became the practice. He told me it was in the early 1950s. So that might mark the time when senators ceased to go to the floor, participate in debates, and deliberate.

LOPEZ: What do you make of Justice Roberts’s health-care decision, and where do we go from there? How does it impact the future of the court? And health care in America?

BUCKLEY: He reached a tenable conclusion, although I suspect I would have parted company with him on the tax question. It will not affect the future of the Court. As for health care in America: If Obamacare is not repealed, health care will be transformed — and for the worse. This, of course, is Congress’s concern, not the Court’s.

LOPEZ: “Congress’s compulsion to scratch every itch on the body politic has so overwhelmed congressional dockets that its members live on a treadmill.” However do we hit reset on that?

BUCKLEY: We begin by taking the Tenth Amendment — i.e., federalism — seriously. There are now over 1,000 grants-in-aid programs on the books that cost us over $600 billion a year. They bribe the states to do a zillion things the federal way at huge bureaucratic cost; and because they are the principal vehicles for pork, they absorb an incredible amount of congressional attention. I would begin by forbidding the enactment of any new ones, convert the existing ones into block grants, and then phase them out of existence.

LOPEZ: “Fortunately (if that is the proper word!), the excesses of the Obama administration may have turned the heat up fast enough to ignite a public expansion against the dramatic expansion of federal power that is now occurring.” Do you have hope, about 30 days before the presidential election?

BUCKLEY: There are now just 34 days. I continue to hope.

LOPEZ: Does a second term of President Obama mean democracy’s demise?


LOPEZ: I’m reliably told you learned to dance from Audrey Meadows, later of Honeymooners fame. Care to confirm? What do you remember most about her?

BUCKLEY: Wrong! It was her older sister Jayne who taught me to dance. According to my wife, however I was either a very bad student or she wasn’t a very good teacher. I suspect the former.

The Meadows sisters were the daughters of the Episcopalian minister at the church across the street from our home in Sharon, Conn.

LOPEZ: What does being recognized by The Human Life Review as a “Defender of Life” later this month in New York mean to you?

BUCKLEY: A great, great deal, even though so many others are far more deserving of the honor. I have had the opportunity to speak up for life on several occasions during my public career, but others have done so year after year, and to great effect in changing public attitudes towards abortion.

LOPEZ: Did you think Roe would live this long? That we’d mark its 40th anniversary, as we will come January?

BUCKLEY: I feared this would be the case because of the near impossibility of securing the two-thirds support required to launch a constitutional amendment. I had hoped, however, that the Supreme Court would one day revisit the issue and admit its error in Roe. That hope continues, especially as there is a noticeable swing across the country to a pro-life position.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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