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.