October 15, 2010
It now appears likely that Republicans will regain control of the House of Representatives next month, with an outside chance of controlling the Senate as well. Thus we will once again have a president and at least one house of Congress from different political parties. Although routinely derided by political scientists as a recipe for paralysis, gridlock has in practice sometimes facilitated action on issues that required bipartisanship.
To begin with, gridlock is not uncommon in our history. Since 1856, when the modern two-party system emerged with the rise of the Republican Party and the collapse of the Whig Party, the country has had 91 years in which one party controlled the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives, and 63 years in which the parties shared control.
One can argue that gridlock was baked in the cake by the Founding Fathers when they established the separation of powers as a bedrock constitutional principle. At the Constitutional Convention, the idea of a parliamentary system, in which the legislative and executive branches are necessarily under unified party control, was considered and rejected.
It’s possible that the Founding Fathers might have followed a different approach if they were more aware of the importance that political parties would play in our political system. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison famously denounced “factions” that sought to direct government policy toward their parochial interests rather than the national interest. But he thought that their influence would diminish over time as the population grew and it became harder to organize parties except around broadly acceptable policies.
Other than the problem of slavery, which proved to be irreconcilable except through war, Madison’s vision was essentially correct. As compared to European political parties, our two major parties have long been far closer to each other ideologically; we tend to debate policy within a fairly limited range of options between the center-right and center-left. Although occasionally radicals may achieve the nomination of a major party, they are very seldom victorious. And when they are they soon find that the U.S. Congress tends to be inhospitable to those with extreme views.
The Founding Fathers favored an inherent
gridlockin order to raise the bar for changing laws.
A key moderating effect is the requirement that the president must obtain an absolute majority in the Electoral College to be elected. In practice, this makes third parties unviable. Thus those with extreme views are necessarily forced to work within the two-party system, where compromise and cooperation are required to advance an agenda, which shaves off sharp ideological edges.
And of course the separation of powers and the division of Congress into two different legislative bodies with distinct election procedures and parliamentary rules, which may be under different party control, as they have been 18 percent of the time since 1857, further constrains radical agendas.
All of this creates an inherent gridlock that the Founding Fathers favored in order to raise the bar for changing laws. Any legislation that could achieve passage in both the House and Senate and gain the president’s signature was probably worth doing, they theorized.
What may be changing, however, is the role of political parties in this system. To a greater extent than in the past, Republican members of Congress being elected this year will owe their success not so much to their own efforts, knowledge of the issues and service to their states and districts, but rather to a tidal wave of corporate money and intense hostility toward Democrats that is driven less by their actions in office than the economic downturn that actually began during Republican George W. Bush’s administration.
Such political Tsunamis come along every once in a great while. When they occurred in Democratic years such as 1932 and 1964, they led to a wave of liberal legislation that subsequent Republican Congresses and administrations were powerless to repeal. Government has tended to grow in America not in a straight line, but more through a ratchet effect in which wars and large temporary majorities for one party — which may possibly have come about largely through the other party’s screw-up, such as when Watergate led to huge Democratic gains in 1974 — have added new programs that quickly embedded themselves, creating powerful political constituencies resistant to change.
When Republicans had both houses of Congress … we
got two unfunded wars, a vast expansion of Medicare … and at
least $1 trillion of new defense and homeland security spending.
But contrary to popular belief, Republicans are just as likely to add to the ratchet effect as Democrats. During the George W. Bush years, when Republicans had both houses of Congress and a president who resisted vetoing anything enacted by a Republican Congress, we got two unfunded wars, a vast expansion of Medicare even as its spending was already exploding, increased agricultural subsidies, steel tariffs, bridges to nowhere and unlimited pork barrel projects for any Republican who wanted one, at least $1 trillion of new defense and homeland security spending over and above the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a vast proliferation of tax cuts that are so much like direct spending that economists call them “tax expenditures.”
Too bad we didn’t have more gridlock in 2001 through 2006, when Democrats retook the House and Senate; it might have saved the country from two unnecessary wars, a lot of dead servicemen and women, a vast amount of spending that the country couldn’t afford, and the intentional destruction of the government’s revenue-raising capacity so that a debt crisis has become almost certain in the not-too-distant future.
[Democrats] didn’t have the guts to push a fiscal stimulus
plan as large as their economic advisers said was necessary.
Democrats had the bad luck to retake complete control right at the beginning of the second greatest economic crisis in our history. Unfortunately, they played their cards badly. They didn’t have the guts to push a fiscal stimulus plan as large as their economic advisers said was necessary, then they immediately stopped talking about the economy and unemployment, turning their attention instead to health care reform, energy and the environment, and a host of other issues.
I think President Obama and Democrats in Congress are being punished less for economic conditions beyond their control than a perception that they didn’t care enough about the Number One problem affecting the country — slow growth and high unemployment. If they had put aside the rest of their agenda and focused like a laser on restoring the economy to health, they would be in far better shape politically, even if actual economic conditions were no better today.
That is what Franklin Roosevelt did after being elected in 1932, which saved his party from a backlash in 1934. Even though the economy was still very weak, Democrats picked up seats in both the House and Senate. Americans want to know that their leaders care about what is most important to them and will quickly reject those with a different agenda.
Some observers think that Obama may be given a great opportunity to pivot rightward toward the center by a Republican congressional victory and hence actually benefit, as Bill Clinton did after the Republican congressional victory in 1994. The idea is that liberals in Congress often push Democratic presidents too far to the left and waste his time on issues that are not broadly popular. At the same time, Republicans may provide Obama with an easy foil against which to contrast his moderate manner. This worked very well for Clinton and Harry Truman. And if, as many expect, a lot of not-ready-for-primetime Tea Party members get elected, with crazy rhetoric and impossible demands, Obama may have an easier job than Republicans imagine of repositioning himself for reelection in 2012.
They may be willing to elect a few crackpots to
Congress, where they know they will have little influence
individually, but take the election of a president much more seriously.
At this point, Americans’ well-documented fondness for gridlock, which has been confirmed in every poll ever taken on the subject, becomes Obama’s ally. They may be willing to elect a few crackpots to Congress, where they know they will have little influence individually, but take the election of a president much more seriously. And if they see a Republican Congress being excessively partisan — wasting time on witch hunts, extremely ideological measures that cannot be enacted over a presidential veto, an inability to perform the routine work of Congress such as passing annual appropriations bills or a debt limit increase, or even launching a Quixotic impeachment effort against Obama — then public opinion will change very, very fast.
The best thing for Republicans would be to work with Obama on issues where each has something potentially to gain, as Ronald Reagan did with tax reform in 1986 and Bill Clinton did with welfare reform in 1996. Entitlement reform might be the issue that brings them together — Obama may be willing to support reforms that Democrats in Congress wouldn’t dare touch and give political cover to Republicans for actions they would dare not take on their own, assuming they are serious about actually cutting spending.
Gridlock is a two-edged sword for both parties. The one that best uses its opportunities will benefit in 2012.