Divided We Stand

What to expect from the long-awaited, much-anticipated return of gridlock.

As President Bush astutely noted, the midterm elections were “a thumpin’” for the Republicans. En route to losing majorities in the House and Senate, the GOP failed to pick up a single House or Senate seat formerly held by a Democrat—the first time a major party has failed in such a spectacular manner since 1980. Overall, 27 Republican incumbents went down in flames. And two-thirds of the districts that flipped to the Democratic side of the ledger were carried by Bush on the presidential ballot just two years earlier.

But as bad as November’s rout might have been for the GOP, libertarians and other small-government types are the ones who have taken the real thumpin’ during the last six years. Unfettered Republican control of the federal government has given us a seemingly endless series of hyperactive, unconstrained, and largely ineffective government activities: the No Child Left Behind Act, the Medicare drug benefit, record levels of spending, and a foreign policy that, to be charitable, lurches between deadly incompetence and deadly hubris.

With the Democrats poised to take over Congress—and promising to push all sorts of legislation within the first 100 hours—is the return of divided government a good thing? We asked nine policy experts and political observers to weigh in on the new situation: What sort of legislation and political theater should the friends of “Free Minds and Free Markets” expect during the next two years? Is the new situation an improvement or disaster?

Ryan Sager

Bipartisanship is just another word for “terrible idea.” But one-party rule, by either party, is the worst of all possible worlds. Just as our three branches of government check each other, so do our two major parties. When that balance is thrown out of whack, all hell is let loose on the Constitution and on the taxpayer’s wallet.

Former Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas—a man who is intimately familiar with the workings of both united and divided government as we’ve experienced it during the last 10 years—put it eloquently. “When I used to stand up and say ‘hell no’ to Bill Clinton, I was always applauded by all the people I love,” Armey recalled when I interviewed him in 2005. “When I stood up and said ‘hell no’ to George Bush, I was berated by all the people I love.”

And it really is as simple as that. When there’s no one around to say “hell no,” both the executive branch and the legislative branch get everything they want. And that invariably means more government—whether you’re talking about pork, a new entitlement program, or radically enhanced government surveillance powers.

The problem we may see during the next two years, however, is that George W. Bush is hardly a conservative in the first place. Most of his major “accomplishments” wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Democratic administration: No Child Left Behind, campaign finance reform, the Medicare prescription drug bill. If the president decides that his legacy depends on his administration’s commitment to bipartisanship—and if the Republican minority in Congress continues to refuse to stand up to him—we could all end up feeling unexpected nostalgia for the last six years.

Ryan Sager, a columnist for the New York Post, is the author of The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party (John Wiley & Sons).

William Niskanen

Our federal government serves us better (or maybe less badly) when at least one house of Congress is controlled by a different party than the party of the president. Under divided government, the rate of increase of real per capita federal spending has been significantly lower, a war is most unlikely, and so is a major increase in entitlements.

Surprisingly, this pattern is independent of the president’s party. During the last 50 years, for example, the highest rates of increase in federal spending, a war, and a major increase in entitlements occurred under the administrations of Democrat Lyndon Johnson and Republican George W. Bush, whose parties also controlled both houses of Congress. And the lowest rates of increase in federal spending, no war, and no increase in entitlements occurred under the administrations of Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Bill Clinton, who both faced legislatures controlled by opposing parties for most of their presidencies.

Divided government has this effect because each party has the opportunity to block the spending proposals and controversial measures proposed by the other party. But divided government has not foreclosed the opportunity for major reforms, as evidenced by the tax reform of 1986 and the welfare reform of 1996. American voters, in their unarticulated wisdom, have chosen a divided government in most years since World War II.

A period in the political wilderness may also benefit the Republican Party. Republicans are more likely to remember their commitment to fiscal responsibility when Democrats propose most of the spending. And social conservatives are more likely to focus their political activities on state legislatures when they don’t have the option to achieve their preferred policies through federal legislation.

William Niskanen is chairman of the Cato Institute and former acting chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Lisa Snell

With federal education policy, we will not see gridlock. The Democrats and their Republican partners will continue to expand federal spending on education.

The Democrats’ No. 1 education priority is to expand “access” to college—a goal shared by many Republicans. Democrats plan to further subsidize college by cutting student loan interest rates in half, creating a $3,000 federal tax credit for tuition, and raising the maximum Pell Grant award to $5,100, up from $4,050. This will continue to drive up the cost of college tuition as more “free” federal money leads to ever-expanding college budgets.

In addition, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) will be the subject of immediate congressional hearings in a bipartisan effort to reauthorize the law before Bush leaves office. The law requires schools to meet minimum student achievement goals for proficiency in reading and math for every subgroup of children or face so-called federal sanctions. So far, the law has been long on spending and short on sanctions. NCLB will be the subject of contentious wrangling and likely will not be reauthorized before the next presidential election. But we should expect a larger federal push toward “fully funding” the law. There may also be the beginnings of a “bipartisan movement” toward creating national standards to help schools meet their proficiency goals under NCLB and a call for a larger federal investment in universal preschool to prepare kids early for the rigorous requirements of NCLB.

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