Nearly 70 years after graduating from Yale, James L. Buckley ’44 LAW ’49 returned to campus as the only living person to have held a high office in each of the three branches of the United States government.
Buckley reflected on the balance between state and federal power and its origins in the Constitution at a Wednesday afternoon Pierson College Master’s Tea, which drew a diverse audience of over 50 undergraduates, graduates students and members of the New Haven community. Buckley — who has served as a U.S. senator from New York, undersecretary of state for security assistance under President Ronald Reagan and a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — spoke on the expansion of the national government’s role in the past century and the dangers of straying too far from the Founding Fathers’ intents.
“I believe that at the national level we are losing our ability for effective government,” he said. “We must reduce the scope of federal responsibilities to a manageable size.”
Buckley said his close study of the Constitution at Yale sparked his devotion to its founding principles. At the tea — co-sponsored by the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program — Buckley told the story of his 1976 senatorial campaign when his opponent claimed that Buckley was “stuck in the 18th century.” Buckley later acknowledged this claim as true, adding that a more appropriate question is whether 18th century values are still relevant today. Buckley cited the “virtual abandonment” of the principles of federalism — defined as a political system with a central government distinct from that of the states — as the source of the federal government’s inability to manage a society as complex as that of the United States.
Buckley said President Barack Obama’s recently passed health care legislation is one example of “everything that has gone wrong in Congress in the past 100 years,” saying it will yield an “unending stream of jaw-dropping, unintended consequences.” He said he blames the courts in part for this departure from federalism because the courts find almost every extension of the national government’s powers as constitutional.
But Buckley said he does not only blame Democrats for ignoring the principles of federalism, though he ran for senator as a Conservative Party member. He also criticized former President George W. Bush ’68 for going “haywire in expanding the power of federal government, even more than some of his Democratic predecessors.”
Buckley said the United States can inhibit its rapidly expanding federal government by finding ways to limit the power of Congress, but did not discuss specifics.
Buckley also said he was saddened by the loss of civility in today’s Congress, adding that the atmosphere of respect present during his time in the Senate has “completely disappeared.”
While he disagrees with Buckley’s stance on federalism in modern politics, Andre Manuel ’16 said he appreciates his concern about the lack of cooperation in Congress.
Pierson College Master Harvey Goldblatt said he was “really delighted” that so many questions about today’s political climate were raised by someone who has been a part of “so many walks of life.” Goldblatt said he would like to see similar conversations about federalism be a focus of future political discussions on campus.
As an undergraduate at Yale, Buckley was a member of Timothy Dwight College.