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.

At the same time, scant attention will be paid to offering students real escapes from low-performing schools. With or without an NCLB reauthorization, billions of federal dollars will be spent on schools where kids continue to languish in failing conditions.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at the Reason Foundation.

Aaron Houston

Every American concerned about excessive government intrusion into our lives should greet with optimism the return to a system of partisan checks and balances.

The last four years have witnessed an unprecedented level of government interference in individual lives. While National Security Agency wiretapping and detainee rights have attracted much attention, examples of abuse of power in other arenas abound, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration's raids on medical marijuana patients.

You shouldn't expect the Democrats to include protections for medical marijuana patients in the leadership's widely touted "First 100 Hours" plan. But this and other issues, such as reforming the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, will at least have a fair hearing this session, which is more than was ever offered when Republicans controlled Congress. We can also expect to see soul searching within the conservative movement and within the GOP. Many Republican members of Congress have long disagreed with the administration on spending, and there is hardly a bigger boondoggle than the nation's failed war on marijuana users.

Intellectually honest conservatives in Congress are now free to pursue cuts in programs they have long despised, such as the government's anti-drug media campaign, which has run ridiculous ads featuring stoned teenagers driving over a little girl on a bicycle, showing one stoned teenager date-raping another, and claiming that people who buy marijuana are funding terrorism. (The media campaign was targeted for elimination by the conservative Republican Study Committee in the House of Representatives in September 2005.)

We cannot expect the country to change overnight, and certainly not in the first 100 hours of a Democratic Congress. But the Bush administration will no longer have carte blanche to run roughshod over our individual liberties. Americans of all political stripes ought to rest a little easier.

Aaron Houston is director of government relations at the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.

Adrian Moore

In 2000 President Bush had bold plans for privatization and shrinking the federal work force. His Management Agenda included making it a matter of course to use "competitive sourcing" to shift work to the private sector whenever it makes sense to do so.

But the GOP Congress never supported Bush's privatization efforts. Already drunk on power and with a war on terror supplying endless kegs of that heady brew, few Republicans saw any reason for competition and privatization. They resisted legislative changes that would advance privatization, refused to appropriate funds for the privatization process, and took a sudden keen interest in protecting valiant federal workers from the depredations of competition.

In spite of congressional resistance, Bush's political appointees, especially in the transportation, interior, and defense departments, marched ahead with competitive sourcing, saving more than $3 billion and outsourcing about 41,000 federal jobs, almost enough to offset the fiasco of federalizing the once-private airport security workers. Unlike the Clinton-era outsourcing of federal workers, the Bush administration's efforts were felt across the federal government, not just in the military.

In the next two years, privatization by federal agencies probably will taper off. The Democrats now in power are suspicious of the private sector and like to glorify the public servants in government employ. They will probably resist Bush's competitive sourcing more actively than the Republicans did. More important, the political appointees who carried the ball are starting to look for new jobs and will be less interested in pushing privatization on an unwilling bureaucracy.

I do expect, though, that the Republicans in Congress, cut off from the taps of power, will rediscover their small-government sensibilities and find some new interest in getting the federal government out of businesses it never should have got into, such as utilities, Amtrak, and Social Security. Better late than never.

Adrian Moore is vice president of research at the Reason Foundation.

Jonathan Rauch

If you're a committed libertarian—which I'm not—the next couple of years won't bring much comfort. From a libertarian point of view, the Democrats want to meddle in labor markets by raising the minimum wage, meddle in pharmaceutical markets to drive down drug prices, and meddle in international trade by obstructing liberalization. They want to spend even more than Republicans on Medicare and the military. They are dug in against private Social Security accounts. They will try to raise taxes. They do want to reduce the U.S. footprint in Iraq, but few of them are committed noninterventionists; many would move U.S. forces from Iraq to Darfur.

Especially disheartening for libertarians is that neither party speaks for an agenda that would keep Washington out of both the bedroom and the boardroom.

On the other hand, if you're only libertarianish—which I am—the next couple of years bring the prospect of blessed relief. Divided government is back, and with it the check on ideological excess and political machine building that has been lacking for four wretched years. Both parties do better when each is watched and checked by the other. The Bush administration is going to have to deliver better results, which I hope will mean rediscovering pragmatism and flexibility. Democrats are going to have to govern, which I hope will mean rediscovering their brains. The result will be to improve the governing capacity of both parties, a welcome change after four years of bipartisan institutional decline.

Some predict "gridlock," but I'm not so sure. Because neither party will want to go to the voters in 2008 bereft of accomplishments, I wouldn't be surprised if the 110th Congress produced some important and pretty good legislation: immigration reform perhaps, or maybe tax reform. If the Democrats manage to restore a pay-as-you-go budget rule with teeth, the additional fiscal discipline would by itself be a sharp turn for the better.

So there is reason to hope that the gainers will include the Democrats, the Republicans, and the public. Oh, and President Bush. To govern in a two-party town, he will have to move to the center, which will raise his popularity (see, e.g.: Schwarzenegger, Gov. Arnold) and curtail his tendency toward self-defeating excess (see, e.g.: torture memo, infamous). Not everything in Washington will be better in the next two years than in the last four, but there is only one direction to go, and it's up.

Jonathan Rauch is a columnist for National Journal, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, and a writer in residence at the Brookings Institution.

Carolyn Lochhead

Six years of nearly uninterrupted one-party rule delivered war, corruption, and the biggest expansion in federal spending since Lyndon Johnson. It's hard to imagine how Democrats could beat that record.

As one ex-Republican voter from rural Missouri put it, "I used to be one of those that thought gridlock was awful—you know, if we just had a Congress that would support the president, we would finally get something done. Now I realize that I don't like it that way."

Gridlock is great for containing each party's worst impulses. Untethered, Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton might have done some serious damage. But Gingrich was busy storming off Air Force One, and Clinton was occupied with ordering pizza for late-night budget fights, so the 1990s brought peace and prosperity.

"There's no question, if we're holding down spending, a Democratic president and a Republican House and Senate is the proper combination," the late Milton Friedman told me last year. Whether a Democratic Congress and Bush White House will work as well remains to be seen.

Republicans, if we are to believe them, want to get back to their Goldwater roots. Democrats, if we are to believe them, want bipartisanship. That's unlikely to last—unless Bush goes along. His record on vetoing bills (one) is unmatched since Thomas Jefferson.

Democrats are pushing populism: no on trade, yes on government negotiation of drug prices. They're all about alternative fuels and global warming. Lots of Republicans agree. But Democrats also want to cut GOP subsidies for the oil industry and balance the budget. Some are already sounding hesitant on rolling back tax cuts, observing record revenues and a booming stock market.

"War is a friend of the state," Friedman noted. Who knows? Democrats might even help Bush out of Iraq.

Carolyn Lochhead is the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Andrew P. Napolitano

George W. Bush, with a rubber-stamp Congress, has shown less fidelity to the Constitution than any president since Abraham Lincoln. At the very least, with divided government in the next two years, we should expect more constitutional government.

The Bush administration, which has treated the Congress—on the rare occasions when it failed to act as a rubber stamp—as if it were merely a constitutional nuisance, will be forced to read the supreme law of the land, and to recognize and accept the equality of the Congress with the executive branch. With the Democrats in control of both houses, we can now expect congressional interaction with the executive branch to be more in line with what the Founders contemplated.

We can also expect to learn what kind of intelligence the administration relied on and used to persuade the United Nations, the Congress, and the American people that Iraq should be invaded. We can hope to learn what kinds of activities were included in the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program and in the CIA interrogation, detention, torture, and rendition program. And perhaps we'll discover what poor souls have unknowingly suffered the rape of their constitutional liberties silently administered through the PATRIOT Act.

Unfortunately, whenever Democrats are in charge, we run the risk that wealth transfers will be at the top of their agenda. But I suspect that investigations of the Bush administration and enforcement of constitutional norms will occupy their days.

As for the political theater, it should make for great watching. Think of this: The Republican Congress permitted Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to testify before the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee without taking an oath to tell the truth. This is unheard of in American law. Will he now testify when compelled to be truthful? Will he truthfully tell Congress what he knows? What will he do when Congress uses its contempt power against him? The spectacle should be captivating.

Andrew P. Napolitano, a former judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, is the senior judicial analyst at the Fox News Channel. His most recent book is The Constitution in Exile: How the Federal Government Has Seized Power by Rewriting the Supreme Law of the Land (Nelson).

John Hood

For liberty lovers, divided government is said to be ideal. Partisan division is supposed to result in salutary inaction. If a house divided against itself cannot stand, then perhaps a government divided against itself will sit down and shut up.

There is empirical evidence for this proposition. At the federal level, both 1) Ronald Reagan and a (partially) Democratic Congress and 2) Bill Clinton and a (partially) Republican Congress demonstrated more fiscal restraint than did unified GOP government under George W. Bush. At the state level, taxpayers usually have been better off in states with divided government than states where both the governor and legislature shared a party (though it must be noted that the differences are fairly small).

The problem for free marketeers at the moment, however, is that divided government is not really heaven on earth. It's more like a precarious purgatory. Because spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlements is going to explode in the not-too-distant future, federal inaction is not good news. Policy makers must take action now to avoid big tax increases or other unwelcome outcomes in the future. I'd console myself with the knowledge that at least divided government in Washington means no repeat of the Medicaid Part D disaster, except that I don't really believe it. The Democratic Congress may prevent another war, and Bush may (finally) veto bad Democratic bills on regulation or trade, but I fear "bipartisanship" is a real danger.

John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.