Civil Liberties

Division Dividends

Two-party control is better than the alternative, but not much.


In my neighborhood of Dallas, not far from where George and Laura Bush moved after he presided over eight years of big-government conservatism, I often see signs that say, "Had Enough? Vote Republican!" They remind me of a bad sunburn I suffered during a camping trip last June.

At night I would lie on an air mattress in our tent, trying to find the least uncomfortable position. I would lie on my left side until the pain became unbearable, then switch to my right side. And so on.

Divided government, which we seem to be on the verge of achieving, promises a better way. Instead of switching back and forth between equally painful alternatives, we combine them, with results that are slightly less painful, like a sunburn on the third day, when the blisters appear.

No one said it would be pretty. But putting one party in control of the White House and the other in control of Congress is supposed to make blind partisanship work for us, checking the worst instincts of both teams.

Or so I reasoned four years ago, when I was rooting for Republican losses in the last midterm elections. "The combination of a Democratic Congress and a Republican president," I wrote, "could not possibly be worse, and might very well be better, than the current arrangement, in which a Republican executive and a Republican legislature conspire to mulct our money and filch our freedoms."

How'd that new combination work out? Not great, I admit, but probably better than the alternative.

Did Bush, as I expected, "suddenly find his veto pen when confronted by free-spending Democrats instead of free-spending Republicans"? Yes, although the payoff was disappointing.

Bush blocked an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (legislation that Barack Obama signed two weeks after taking office). But his farm bill veto, based on concerns that agricultural subsidies were too generous, was overridden, and Congress used accounting tricks to dodge his demand for spending restraint.

The first year of Bush with a Democratic Congress, when spending barely rose, looks good for fans of divided government. But the second year saw a real increase of 5.4 percent, more than in all but one other previous year under Bush.

Spending in fiscal year 2009, which was largely approved under Bush and included the last three months of his second term, jumped a jaw-dropping 18 percent in real terms. Even if you blame it partly on the recession and partly on Obama (who voted for the spending as a senator and pushed more of it as president), it does not make a good exhibit in the case for divided government.

But if you take a longer view, says Stephen Slivinski, author of Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government, avoiding one-party control of the executive and legislative branches still looks like a good fiscal bet. "Between 1965 and 2009," he writes in the Washington Examiner, "the average growth rate of real per capita federal spending in the divided government years was 1.9%. For the years of united government, that average was 3.1%."

Counterfactual scenarios also suggest the advantages of divided government. It would not have prevented Bush's reckless expansion of Medicare or his education spending, but it would have stopped Obama's stimulus package and his health care law.

What about executive power? In 2006 I suggested "a Congress run by Democrats would be more inclined to impose limits on the president's surveillance, detention, and war powers."

As it turned out, the only real limits have been imposed by the courts. The Democratic Congress (including Obama) retroactively approved Bush's warrantless wiretaps, and it did nothing to stop him from illegally using the Troubled Asset Relief Program to bail out automakers, a policy Obama continued.

It seems members of Congress acquiesce in presidential power grabs 1) when their guy is in charge and 2) when they figure he will be soon enough. In short: always.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2010 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. I beat Suki!

    1. You filthy pervert!

    2. Is it just me or has the lack of a Suki “Good Morning” post the last week or so been a nice change of pace?

      About the article, the sunburn analogy was really good. You could also compare it to two routes home from work, both of which are bogged down by traffic, but one has nicer scenery and the other one has better food along the way. Either way though, you’re still stuck in traffic for an hour and a half.

  2. Buzzkill!

  3. Buzzkill!

  4. Then what is the solution?

    1. There isn’t one.

      It is a given that government will grow being that it is a newsworthy event when legislation or regulation is repealed, and we take it for granted that tens of thousands of pages of the stuff is created every year.

      My solution would be to repeal the 17th Amendment and to create a third chamber of Congress whose sole power is to repeal legislation and regulation.

      That way the state governments would have representation in Washington through the Senate giving them the ability to block all these unfunded mandates and other federal coercion, and there would be a mechanism for killing bad bills other than the courts.

      Being that neither of those things will ever happen, the best we can hope for is divided government.

      In short we’re fucked.

      1. You’re too optimistic.

      2. WAY too optimistic.

      3. It would be interesting to see how far a candidate would get on the sole promise that they will push to repeal bills. And for every bill they have to vote for, they will demand at least 3 current laws be repealed.

        1. I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent. The more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws. Let the legislators pass laws only with a two-thirds majority… while the repealers are able to cancel any law through a mere one-third minority. Preposterous? Think about it. If a bill is so poor that it cannot command two-thirds of your consents, is it not likely that it would make a poor law? And if a law is disliked by as many as one-third is it not likely that you would be better off without it?

          The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Heinlein

          Talk about gridlock. Nothing would get done…


          1. This one excerpt has catapulted the book onto my must read list.

          2. It was an amazing book – marvelously relevant to the political bs today.

            Spoiler – politics killed the rebellion in the end of the book as well 🙂

  5. That’s why divided government isn’t enough: what you need is a Republican congress and a Democrat president: pax Clintonia, if you will. Still not ideal, but better than all the viable alternatives.

    1. I have been saying this for a while.

      The D pres with the R congress is the least bad. The laws (usually) start with congress, and an R congress is LESS likely to spew them for the pres to sign (Not that they won’t pound out too many, themselves).

      With the media in love with D’s, the president will not be under the same pressure as an R pres, and can blame inaction on congress. It’s MUCH harder to get a large group to move under pressure, so the press won’t have as much influence on an R congress as a whole.

      The other way doesn’t work – An R pres gets focused attention, there is increased pressure to bow to what the media wants, which is to pass every freaking thing that the D congress puts in front of him.

      1. What about SCOTUS appointments? Do you really want a bunch of Clintonian judges deciding what’s Constitutional?

        1. Not at all. But, if the balance of the court would be shifted too much by a specific appointee, an R congress would not confirm.

    2. Not divided enough. What we need is a House and Senate divided to the point where neither Team has a majority. This would entail a lot of third-party and independent (truly independent, not those who simply run for office that way) seats, which could be done if more Americans stopped buying the Team Red/Team Blue bullshit. But that’s another story.

      This could all be derailed, however, if the Teams just decided a “majority” consisted of less than 50%, which is just the kind of underhanded trickery engaged in by career politicians. But that would have less impact if the majority were less than, say, 30%. Which would be way fuckin’ sweet.

      1. Hey, I’m running as an Independent because I truly believe there is something wrong with the two party system.

        1. We’re locked into two parties because of the winner-take-all method of our elections. The only alternative I’ve seen is what the European parliament has where you vote for the party and the seats in congress are divided up according to the percentage that the part got.

          Not saying we have to/should go there, but that’s why things are the way they are.

          1. That’s what Sen. Kaufman said yesterday on the Daily Show. Except he was talking about the English Parliament, but essentially the same thing. He also made the absurd claim that the parties are becoming more watered down now.

            I think that’s only true in the sense that people with many different views have to water down their message to remain viable as a major party candidate. But if we can do away with the 2-party politics (i.e. let third parties compete in debates, open primaries) and open the floor to more candidates and more options, ala the free market idea, politics can do nothing but prosper.

            1. But the House of Commons is not elected by party lists and proportional representation, it’s elected by plurality in single member districts (“ridings”), just like Congress.

    3. Then you get government shutdowns (probably liked around these parts) and impeachment of the president for retarded things (less so), like last time this happened.

      1. Good. Bring it on, Team Red/Team Blue! Get to gridlockin’ and impeachin’!

        Then, when the tide turns again in ’12… lather, rinse, repeat.

  6. You’re too optimistic.

  7. You know things are pretty bad when we’re using phrases like “pax Clintonia”

  8. The virtues of divided government are a myth, even more so now that the GOP has truly gone off the deep end. Prepare for two years of total insanity.

    1. Yeah, we’d be better off if we just had one-party rule… YOUR party. Right, Tony?

        1. Sorry, Tony, one-party rule is just fucking dangerous, without regard to WHICH party is in power. Which would be absolute power.

          Sure you don’t want to change your answer? Or do you think, given unstoppable power, your party would *not* run roughshod with abuse?

          1. Right now, today, the only way this country will survive is if Republicans are kept as far from power as possible. I don’t LIKE that fact, but it is one.

            1. But your “alternative” is to have nothing but Democrats in power, Tony. And I know you won’t agree, but that’s just getting fucked by a different gorilla.

        2. Pelosi. Foam-at-the-mouth nutjob at war with the economy. Yeah, she’s a sane one: she’s in charge. Get real, Tony, with your forever-shifting word meanings.

    2. If stupid was terminal you would have died in the womb.

    3. Let’s see….Sullum provides evidence, citation, and examples…Tony says that it is a myth….who to believe?…who to believe?

      1. Trouble is, we have limited evidence (not enough repetition of the same conditions), and I’m afraid it’s a fortuitous correlation that tells us nothing about cause & effect. And I think when you look at even more evidence — the individual states of the USA, compared longitudinally — even the correlation between party-divided gov’t and good times goes away.

      2. Actually, I see no statistical analyses at all, just a few anecdotes. But to baggers, a couple picked cherries constituties a proof.

        1. Fuck off, Chad.

    4. Re: Tony,

      The virtues of divided government are a myth, even more so now that the GOP has truly gone off the deep end.

      The virtues of united government are, however, plain for everybody to see:

      North Korea

      All united for a common cause! March on, march on!

      1. Those places you list are preferable to this country by many because they do not have the same inequalities that exist in this country.

        Everyone is shit poor, so there is no wealth envy.

        Everyone is entitled to the same shit government run health care system, so there inequality of services.

        The citizens of those countries under totalitarian rule are truly free.
        They are free from choice because all choices are made for them by government, free from consequence as long as they do what the government dictates, and free from responsibility for their actions as long as they are doing what they are told.

        Tony’s paradise.

        1. And even all that’s a lie. Replace each occurrence of “everyone” with “everyone except high-ranking Party members” and you’re there.

  9. The virtues of divided government are a myth,

    That whole legislative/executive/judiciary thing just blows, man. What this country needs is a dictator!

    1. Just so long as I’m the dictator…

      1. “I strongly believe in the philosophy of a ruling class. Especially since I rule.” – Randall from Clerks.

  10. Seeing how Bush and the GOP are just as responsible for the mess we’re in as Obama and the Democrats the message should say HAD ENOUGH? VOTE BOTH THE PARTIES OUT! I may disagree with the Green Party on 99% of the issues but I think even they could do a more competent job at this point. So long as we Libertarians are there of course to be the hand of reason.

    1. Drink!

      1. My local bar doesn’t open ’till 2:00.

        1. Sounds to me like it’s time to move. Nothing is more awesome than going to get a beer during my lunch break (or earlier). Given, I work on a college campus, so maybe that’s why the bars are open earlier.

        2. That’s why I keep a flask in my desk.

  11. Democrat Congress Republican President – big spending
    Democrat Congress Democrat President – very big spending
    Republican Congress Republican President – very big spending
    Republican Congress Democrat President – only a little big spending

    There is a divided combination that seems to almost work

    1. Because spending is the most important thing to worry about, indeed the only thing that matters in the entire universe (but only when Republicans are out of power).

      1. Well, it is kinda important, Tony. If Team Red hadn’t spent us into a hole, and if Team Blue had abstained from spending us into ANOTHER hole, we wouldn’t need to be talking about damn-fool shit like raising taxes.

      2. Because spending is the most important thing to worry about,

        It is WHEN YOU’RE BROKE, you moron.


        1. Yeah, but government can just raise taxes and print more money, JCR. And Tony’s all up in that kind of shit.

  12. Divided 2-party GVT: Libertarian (always in majority), Republican (always close but not quite taking over, just to check some of the nuttier ideas of Libertarians)

  13. In 2008 when Obama was elected, I said “well, it wouldn’t be so bad if he did not also have a super majority in Congress.” If the Republicans ran Congress and Obama was president, it would be a much easier thing to deal with.

    Honestly, I would rather see a moderate Democrat in the white house with a Republican Congress than either side holding all the cards.

  14. The federal government alone is just one data point, even if it has a long time-series. What about all the US state governments? Does their spending grow faster or slower w/ united or divided government?

  15. Term limits, Pay cuts for all public employees even the house/senate, and no more earmarks. If the schools can be crumbling down, a congressman doesn’t need to get 40,000 dollars to redecorate his/her offices…Give the states back their responsibilities, and let them sink or swim on their own ability to budget. Hopefully all the new blood can stay strong and not be bought…Either way, the people will be watching now!

  16. So… a dead locked government is better than a functioning government? No, intrusive legislation and no additional tax burdens?

  17. Two parties means you get Tweedledee and Tweedledum, two parties who don’t stand for anything except getting and hanging on to power. Proportional voting systems allow for more real voter choices, more civilized politics, and governments held accountable by effective opposition.

  18. I’ve had just about enough of reason. How do these people still claim to be libertarians??

    Unsubscribing. No more $ from me for these sellouts.

  19. Except he was talking about the English Parliament, but essentially the same thing. He also made the absurd claim that the parties are becoming more watered down now

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