The Freak Show: Can Our Divided Government Live Up To Its History

The recent mid-term elections brought about what many are calling a “divided government,” since the Democrats, although still in the majority in the Senate, are now in the minority in the House of Representatives. And in the Senate, they no longer have the votes to control the agenda and override a presidential veto.

Many decry this as a recipe for gridlock, and fear President Obama won’t be able to get any legislation through. However, history defies that theory. Both President Clinton, with a Republican congress, and President Reagan, with a Democratic congress, had their most productive years with the opposing party entrenched in the Capital building.

Last week President Obama met with congressional leaders, including the leading Republican in the House of Representatives, John Boehner, to try and start the process of working together. Topic number one was the upcoming expiration of the Bush tax cuts. The President wants to continue them only for people making under $250,000 a year, while the Republicans are saying it’s all or nothing; that the cuts for the top earners must be included.

Yes, that sounds like gridlock. But before we get too pessimistic about Washington’s ability to do anything, let’s look at recent history. It seems like the most responsible governments were the ones where compromise was necessary. The most fiscally prudent eras were Clinton with a Republican congress, when spending rose only one percent annually, and Eisenhower with a Democratic congress, when spending was actually negative.

The worst government spending sprees, when things got out of control, were actually periods of one party control, with President Bush earlier this decade, and President Obama over the last two years, running up record spending and deficits.

Parties that are in power can’t control themselves. They pass legislation catering to every whim they have and every special interest group with campaign contributions to make, thereby running up the bills and not worrying about opposition.

And don’t think that major initiatives can’t be accomplished during these times. President Clinton passed major welfare reform, free trade agreements and balanced the budget during a period when he had to deal with the Republicans in congress. There were many meetings, and some famous public appearances, with both he and Newt Gingrich getting together and making joint statements.

President Reagan also had both a nemesis and partner in Tip O’Neill, and their work together brought about two major tax overhauls. And the banter between them turned from animosity to admiration, and made for great political theater as well as productive policy.

Why is this? One party rule lends itself to extremes, with no one to bring up moderation. Every party member will get his or her pet project inserted into the bill, related or not to the issue at hand. When there is a party on the other side bringing up objections, then the majority party has more reason to consider the opinions of the minority. And that is actually the tradition of our country, which has a constitution that is supposed to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.

Major reforms are also more likely to last when the minority party has a say in the legislation, and a reason to hope for its success. For example, many Republicans call for the repeal of the health care reform bill. If the Republicans had played a part in its development, and had a number of the party members vote for it, that wouldn’t be an issue now. The Reagan tax overhaul, and the Clinton welfare reform and trade agreements are still largely intact.

By contrast, efforts over the past decade, which has mostly had one party rule, has failed in efforts to bring about social security reform, tax code reform, and other major issues affecting us. And the long-term fate of the Obama health care reform bill, and the Bush tax cuts, are still up in the air.

Divided government is actually the norm, rather than the exception. Over the last 42 years, there were very few that had control of the government by one party or the other. President Johnson and President Carter accounted for nine of those years, the last four years of President Bush accounted for four, and President Obama the last two.

Can President Obama and Representative Boehner bring about recollections of Clinton/Gingrich and Reagan/O’Neill? It’s certainly a time of harsher rhetoric and farther right and left politics. But our future depends on them getting together, and putting on the backburner scoring political points.

Their initial statements after the recent meeting bring optimism, but their actions will tell the real tale. After the meeting, Boehner stated, “We had a very nice meeting today. Of course, we’ve had a lot of very nice meetings. The question is, can we find the common ground the American people expect us to find?”

President Obama added, “It was a very productive meeting. I thought that people came to it with a spirit of trying to work together. And I think it’s a good start as we move forward.”

Democrats have already stated they are going to introduce their tax cut bill, which calls for the tax cuts to be extended to those making less than $250,000. Of course, Representative Boehner has countered that it undercuts whatever progress they made at the meeting.

So the political discourse has not gotten off to the start we would hope for, but history proves that there is hope. Our leaders are elected to govern. Only time will tell if they are up to the task.