Government Spending

Attractive Opposition

Can we count on gridlock?

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As we careen past the event horizon of the presidential election, most undecided voters are struggling to determine which candidate for the nation's top office is most likely to fulfill his campaign promises. But advocates of smaller government, equally repelled by both options, have found themselves devoting more thought to the corollary question: Which candidate will be least able to achieve his ambitions?

For those dissatisfied with George W. Bush's brand of tax-the-future and spend conservatism, the great right hope is the prospect of divided government and the legislative gridlock that's supposed to follow from it, a hope bolstered by the Cato Institute's William Niskanen, who finds slower growth in government spending when the Congress and White House are controlled by different parties.

The Lexington column in the most recent issue of The Economist, however, casts doubt on that line of argument. Lexington cites Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution, who argues that the attractive fiscal situation of the Clinton era, often a keystone of the conservative case for divided government, was correlated with rather than caused by the split on the hill. Nevertheless, Binder's own research does find that an 8 percent increase in gridlock can be expected, on average, when the minority party in Congress holds the presidency. And there are reasons to think that the effect in the next four years will be more robust than average.

Divided government can cut in both directions: Instead of stable gridlock, it may prompt higher levels of logrolling, stuffing appropriations bills with the double serving of pork required to buy off the constituencies of both major parties. This is borne out by findings suggesting that divided government tends to increase the size of the legislative agenda as the independent power loci of the legislature and Oval Office each are able to push their pet issues. But this counterweight effect is apt to be least pronounced when partisanship is intense and the country is highly polarized. David Broder was dismayed to report academic evidence to this effect back in 2002, but libertarians can take some consolation in it.

Then there's Bush's unusual aversion to the veto, which even in times of unified government has few precedents. While John Kerry is unlikely to match, say, the inspiring 414 vetoes of Grover Cleveland's first term, a bit of regression toward the mean is likely to have a pronounced effect relative to Bush's entrenchment at the far end of the veto bell curve.

Finally, there's the internal dynamic of the GOP to consider. David Brooks, in a much-discussed New York Times Magazine piece, rather dramatically proclaimed the "death of small-government conservatism." This has not sat well with small-government conservatives like Representative Mike Pence (R-Indiana), who at a Club for Growth event during the Republican National Convention, voiced the dissatisfaction of many in the party and called for an internal debate about the GOP's disturbing new direction…just as soon as Bush had been reelected. Of course, on the heels of such a victory, disaffected conservatives couldn't expect all that much leverage. A Kerry win might let them have their cake and eat it, too: The larger-government faction currently in the saddle would take blame for the loss, while the small-government faithful could cross the aisle to support pay-as-you-go reforms, which Kerry would be under pressure to follow through on.

Of course, as The Economist notes, divided government is no deus ex machina. Demand in the market for free money will always be strong, and we can expect spending to grow whichever way the dimpled chad falls next week. Still, we can take some comfort in the thought that, should the most liberal member of the Senate realize his lifelong ambition to take the presidency, it may be the last of his dreams to come true for a long while.