Magazine article The American Conservative

Mr. Buckley Goes to Washington

Magazine article The American Conservative

Mr. Buckley Goes to Washington

Article excerpt

Mr. Buckley Goes to Washington [Freedom at Risk: Reflections on Politics, Liberty and the State, James L. Buckley, Encounter, 294 pages]

HISTORIANS OF AMERICAN conservatism pass too readily over James BucMey and his 1971-77 tenure in the U.S. Senate. They tend instead to focus on two other periods. First is the efflorescence of conservative talent and intellectual engagement in the 1950s, as illustrated by the publication of Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind and the founding of National Review by James BucMey's younger brother, William. The second period begins with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. In between, conservatives are usually cast as Christians in the catacombs, quietly enduring the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.

But this is too simplistic a tale. James BucMey shows that conservatism was not moribund after Goldwater and before Reagan, not even on the political scene. In 1970 he won election to the U.S. Senate on the Conservative Party ticket in New York. He performed well in New York City itself, at a time when the city still had a beating conservative heart in the middle-class neighborhoods of the outer boroughs. BucMey's achievement is unlikely ever to be repeated. But his significance in the shaping of American politics does not end there.

In 1976, he was the lead petitioner in Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court decision that shaped modern campaignfinance law. The ruling struck down limits on independent expenditures, candidate self-financing, and overall campaign spending - but it upheld restrictions on direct contributions to candidates. As BucMey notes in a 1999 essay included here, limiting direct contributions has tended to favor the current holders of power. The court effectively eliminated the possibility of a third-party candidate becoming nationally viable with just a few wealthy supporters. The ruling also created the endless phonathon that is the current mode of congressional fundraising.

Having lost a bid for re-election to the Senate to Daniel Patrick Moynihan that same year, Buckley went on to a distinguished career as an undersecretary of state - during Reagan's first term - and a federal appellate judge. In between, Buckley held a number of other positions, including as president of Radio Free Europe in the mid-1980s. These varied roles render him perhaps the only living American to have held high office in all three branches of the federal government.

Freedom at Risk collects almost 40 essays, speeches, and commentaries over this long career, covering subjects from the Cold War to environmental regulation, from foreign affairs and energy policy to campaign-finance reform and the role of judges. What comes through in Buckley's impassioned but not overly partisan writing is that the federal system is broken and cannot be fixed unless certain features - federalism and judicial self-restraint chief among them - are reinstated. In his charming 1973 piece "On Becoming a United States Senator," Buckley explains how legislators vote on bills they cannot possibly have read or mastered. The bills are too long and convoluted and Senators have pressing demands on their tirne - including, thanks to the Buckley decision, constantly beseeching donors. Actual legislative deliberation is almost impossible. Major laws such as Obamacare weigh in at thousands of pages, to say nothing of the thousands more pages of regulations to come.

There is simply no way for members of Congress to know what is in these laws. By necessity, most members "will cast their votes on a largely reflective political basis; and because nearly all members of Congress are full-time career legislators, a member's calculus will inevitably include an assessment of the impact of a particular vote on his chances for re-election rather than being based solely on his best judgment as to where the public interest lies." Thus legislation is drafted and passed thanks to a combination of lobbying, press reports, gut feeling, and partisan favor-swapping, a situation that has only worsened since Buckley served. …

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