The federal government threatens a Nevada rancher with the loss of his private property. A Long Island man loses his life to Obamacare while a Virginia woman’s family says, “Obamacare killed my sister." IRS bureaucrat Lois Lerner is held in contempt of Congress, having emerged as the key figure in a scheme to deprive conservatives of their rights.
With these stories and endless others spilling into the news cycle, F.H. Buckley’s new book — The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America — could not be better timed. Mr. Buckley’s writings are familiar on these pages in his role as a senior editor of The American Spectator, but it is his background as foundation professor at the George Mason School of Law that gives this book such incredible resonance.
That the federal government of the United States has careened out of control is increasingly indisputable, as one example after another erupts into pubic view. In addition to the few mentioned above, there’s the Wyoming family that built a stock pond on their private property — in accordance with state law — and now faces a $75,000 a day fine from the EPA for not getting a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. A congressional report alerts us that just to comply with the regulations set in motion by the Dodd-Frank financial “reform” law will cost the private sector an astonishing 24 million man hours—and that’s with only 185 of 400 new federal regulatory rules written. And who can forget the Orwellian-titled “Independent Payment Advisory Board," charged officially with containing Medicare costs that, in the view of alarmed critics, are really all about rationing medical care? Yes, this is precisely the “death panel” Sarah Palin made famous.
There isn’t an area of American life that is untouched by the presence of what has become the federal leviathan. Health care, private property, business, labor, education, the environment, transportation, housing — on and on — and on and on — the list goes endlessly. That this is a fact of life in America today is well beyond dispute. The question is: What to do about it?
What Mr. Buckley provides in his new book is first of all a necessary history of how we got here. The term “Crown Government” in the book’s subtitle is no accident.
Buckley says that while most Americans “believe that this country uniquely protects liberty, that it does so because of its Constitution, and that for this our thanks must go to the Founders who assembled in Philadelphia to draft the document in 1787," the truth is, in fact, something quite different. There have, Buckley says, been “four American Constitutions,” each resulting in different forms of government: “We have seen three thus far, and now are on the cusp of a fourth.”
The first constitution — which pre-dates the thirteen colonies of the revolutionary era — was the original Crown Government. This is the government of ingloriously infamous American history. The government of the King, by the King, and for the King. The King, of course, being Britain’s King George III. Buckley writes in a sentence that sounds eerily familiar today if one were to substitute the word “president” for “king” and the name “Barack Obama” for “George III”:
First came the “personal government” of George III, who chose his ministers and was supported by a large block of “King’s Friends” in Parliament. While sharing power with Parliament, the King dominated the government, and the American Revolution was itself a consequence of his unpopular resistance to the colonists’ demands.
The second American constitution began after the success of the American Revolution. As the Framers looked across the ocean after the war, they saw the king’s strength decreased by the fall of his powerful prime minister, Lord North. “Power was shared between King and Parliament,” Buckley writes, and it was no accident that it was exactly at this point that the Framers gathered in 1787, believing they were seeing a new British government—not one where the King held sway, but rather a government featuring “a separation of powers between the executive branch, in the form of the monarch, and the legislative branch in Parliament.”
Thus the U.S. Constitution was crafted with an emphasis on the legislative branch, with the American version of Parliament being the United States Congress. And so it was for the first fifty years of American government, maintains Buckley, who says that it is “historically inaccurate to view the Constitution through a separationist prism.”
And here Buckley makes a point that is a core contention elsewhere (more on this in a moment). To wit, in discussing the final shape of the proposed national government, the Framers “arrived at a method of choosing senators not to promote an abstract principle of separation of powers within the central government, but to give states a measure of control over the central government.”
The Age of Jackson ushered in a strong president who was forced to share power with an equally powerful Congress — a.k.a. the separation of powers. So strong was Jackson that he was assailed — shades of things to come — as King Andrew I. Yet at the same time, while Jackson won battles with Congress — notably over the Bank of the United States — he encountered furious resistance, at one point being formally censured in the U.S. Senate.
But as the Age of Jackson faded, the idea of an all-powerful president gained force.
Buckley’s point — that we moved through the Crown Government of George III to the “first” American Constitution that centered on congressional government to a second that focused on the separation of powers — gathers force here as he describes the third constitution. The rise of the strong executive — with presidents from Lincoln to the Roosevelts and on to (most of) the presidents of the last half of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first — has now reached what could be called a tipping point.
Buckley spends time discussing “the recent expansion of American presidential power” and its popularity in political literature. Unless, of course, liberals faced a strong president who was a Republican. In which case there was hell to pay.
Buckley relates this telling story:
Other writers, more partisan than [political scientist Theodore Lowi], discovered signs of presidential overreach only when their man lost and the other fellow won. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. proudly served as a Kennedy adviser, but subsequently condemned Richard Nixon’s abuse of his presidential powers, and called for a return of power to the congressional branch in a book called The Imperial Presidency. Plus ça change, the book was reissued in 2004, in time for Schlesinger to expatiate on George W. Bush’s alarming assertions of presidential authority. In between, Schlesinger bemoaned the political weakness of the Carter administration and the House’s impeachment of Bill Clinton. At times the changing of gears can be amusing. The most celebrated scholar of the subject, Richard E. Neustadt, published Presidential Power in 1960, decrying executive weakness and in suggesting ways in which a presidential hero like Kennedy could amass more power. Twelve years later he found himself approached by a clean-cut young Nixon aide at a conference. “I’m glad I met you,” Jeb Magruder told him. “I read your book a couple of years ago, indeed I had to. Bob Haldeman [Nixon’s White House chief of staff] made each of us read it as soon as we joined the White House staff.” When Neustadt next heard of Magruder, he and H.R. Haldeman were being indicted for their roles in the Watergate scandal.
The point is, as Buckley says, “nearly everyone agrees that the role of the president has expanded, and that of Congress has receded.” And in conjunction, the regulatory state — controlled by the executive — expanded as well. There are, Buckley points out, some 2.5 million executive branch employees, excluding the military but including all other federal agencies. Presidential appointees head this army of federal workers in all their many manifestations.
At the top of the struggle over Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle sits not the Bureau of Land Management but the Obama-appointed secretary of the interior, who reports to the president. At the top of the EPA that is harassing that Wyoming family with threats of a $75,000 a day fine sits the administrator appointed by and answerable to the president. The authors of those thousands of pages that include those creating demands on the private sector for 24 million compliance hours over Dodd-Frank? They must be written by, among others, the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission — all of whom (and more) respond at some level to appointees who owe their jobs to the president.
The so-called “two midnight rule” that took the life of Long Islander Frank Alfisi, as mentioned in this space the other week? Or the Obamacare rules that killed Virginian Julie Stovall? All written by regulators who report to someone who reports to someone who eventually reports to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius who, until her successor Sylvia Mathews Burwell takes over, reports to the president.
This doesn’t even count all those Obama-appointed “czars” who, as Buckley points out, “are not cabinet members and thus do not require Senate confirmation, but are nonetheless charged with major oversight responsibilities.”
Buckley includes a chapter called “Taming the King” that begins with a telling quote from William Blake: “The Strongest poison ever known/Came from Caesar’s Laurel Crown.” He notes the different flavors of corruption that have appeared in the American presidency: the president as dictator or “slackard and incompetent” or personally corrupt or given to “low tricks and skullduggery” or even personally honorable but still presiding “over a government of crooks.” He names names here and doubtless readers will fill in the blanks with their own favorites.
Buckley doesn’t forget the media’s role here either. Once presumed to be the watchdog, suffice to say that, in the Obama era, combined with the rise of social media and the adoring coverage of the White House, the watch dog has turned into a toothless poodle. And while the indictment of Obama critic Dinesh D’Souza is not mentioned, Buckley’s discussion of “criminalizing political differences” is superb. He recounts the terrifying case of Krister Evertson — an “Eagle Scout, National Honor Society member, science whiz, clean energy inventor, and small business entrepreneur” who is now a felon. Why? Evertson “failed to put a ‘ground’ sticker on a package that he shipped.” That’s right, this simple mistake and the federal government prosecuted him. Found innocent by a jury — “the government turned around and prosecuted him again” on a different charge. Evertson spent two years in federal prison for a simple mistake. The fact that America has gotten to a place like this is undoubtedly what caused all those Americans to rally in Nevada for Cliven Bundy.
All of this has collectively served as a tipping point — a return to where America began: with a Crown Government. King George is long gone, but King Barack wears the crown with ease.
This being the case, the question becomes: What to do?
Buckley’s argument here is that while “Crown government is likely a permanent feature of American government,” it is time to return to the Constitution of congressional powers; to turn the ship away from what he calls the “pitfalls of presidentialism” and the administrative, bureaucratic society it has spawned. How to get there?
Buckley suggests three major changes. First is adapting nationally the old progressive reform of states holding referendums on this or that issue. This is done regularly, and makes news often enough in states like California when the issue arouses controversy. (They call them “propositions” in California, always with a number attached; the same-sex marriage ban being famously known as “Prop 8.")
The second Buckley reform is congressional reform. A decided fan of parliamentary democracy, he calls for Congress to “clean up its act” because it has sat by over the years and let its own power decline. Buckley cites the more notorious faults of a “common pool” legislative body: the haggling and negotiating, the pork, the lack of seriousness, the frenzy to pass “comprehensive” bills of thousands of pages, the world of senatorial “holds.” Among his reforms Buckley suggests banning gerrymandering and calling for an independent commission to reset electoral boundaries—pointing out correctly the very real problem caused when “only about a fifth of House seats are in play in any congressional election.”
The third change he suggests is more vigorous use of the impeachment power and a change in the way this is used by Congress. It is used rarely; only presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton have been seriously faced with the problem. Buckley advances the idea that impeachment is grossly underused, and that it should serve a more robust function. Says Buckley: “Congress should impeach and remove presidents often; when their policies fail, when they are touched with scandal, or for no reason — just for the spirit of the thing.” One can only imagine what Attorney General Eric Holder would be shouting if in fact Mr. Obama faced a serious Nixon/Clinton-style threat of impeachment. It would be one word: “Race!”
The Once and Future King is a fascinating and highly instructive read. To borrow from Jefferson, Buckley has rung a fire bell in the night of the Obama era. And while he doesn’t mention it, the idea of Hillary Clinton in the White House — she who launched private investigators on her husband’s mistresses — and in charge of the FBI, CIA, IRS, and every other administrative arm of Big Brother is no comfort.
When one pulls back and surveys the current scene, with all those Americans literally riding to the aid of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in his struggle with the federal behemoth, it is telling that Buckley has produced a book that highlights the intellectual forces that have taken America to this point. While many Americans may not be familiar with the historical context of the problem, that there is a problem — a serious problem — can no longer be in dispute.
What F.H. Buckley has accomplished in The Once and Future King is to seriously document how Americans have spent over two-and-a-quarter centuries journeying from an eighteenth century king to a twenty-first century king called a president. In depth and serious detail, keeping the focus on exactly what has been done to the U.S. Constitution (with a fascinating look at the role of the British prime minister) — Buckley makes clear how the Constitution has been drawn steadily away year-by-year from its original intent.
Always with the best of intentions, but of course.
Just ask King Barack.