The Virtues of Divided Government
Posted on July 16, 2008
(This originally appeared in The Politico)
The choice this fall is not simply between John McCain and Barack Obama. It is also a choice between one-party rule and divided government. While House and Senate Republicans may do better than expected, nobody believes they will get a majority in either chamber. That means that when the voters step into the ballot booth, they have the choice of giving a blank check to the Democrats, in the form of Obama, or having a more accountable system by electing McCain.
Of course, most people don’t think about the concept of divided government when they vote. But they do think about some of the things that flow from divided government, such as oversight, accountability and our system of checks and balances.
In my 15 years as a staff member for the House Republican leadership, I witnessed both divided government and one-party rule, and I think the system works better when both parties have skin in the game.
In 1989, when I started working for House Republican leader Bob Michel of Illinois, the idea of divided government had been largely settled. The American people felt comfortable having a Republican as their president and Democrats running at least one branch of the Congress (usually the House). President George H.W. Bush cut deals with his good friend Dan Rostenkowski, a Democrat who was the House Ways & Means Committee chairman, and when the Democrats became too partisan (which they often did), he had House Republicans there to sustain his vetoes. On certain issues, when the House Democrats could not or would not act, such as with the first Gulf War, Michel took the reins and drove the agenda.
Bill Clinton swept into office in 1993 with significant majorities in both chambers. But the Democrats, beguiled by the promise of one-party rule, tried to push through an over-ambitious agenda, including an extraordinarily unpopular energy tax and a government takeover of health care. Michel’s legislative acumen, combined with House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich’s grass-roots power and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole’s able use of the filibuster, stymied Clinton on many fronts, driving down his popularity and setting up the election of 1994, when the GOP won control.
In 1995, House Republicans began their first majority in 40 years with revolutionary fervor, but at the end of the day, they had to cut a deal with a president they despised. In those first couple of years, Republicans and Clinton actually accomplished some big things, such as a balanced budget and revolutionary welfare reform, despite the intense partisanship.
After the 1998 election, when the Republicans were punished by voters for impeaching a popular president, Gingrich resigned and Denny Hastert became the new Republican speaker. He promised a return to “regular order” to repair the tattered Republican brand, and he worked with Clinton on things such as enterprise zones for America’s inner cities and a lockbox that actually paid down debt with the budget surplus.
In 2001, when George W. Bush assumed the White House, Republicans spoke boldly about building a permanent majority. But such boasts evaporated almost immediately when Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont decided to become an independent, handing control of the chamber to the Democrats.
It was in 2005, after President Bush had dispatched John F. Kerry and House and Senate Republicans expanded their majorities, when the GOP truly thought it had the run of the town. But, as I was quoted in The Washington Post at the time, it is awfully hard running the government when you control all the branches of power. And Republicans found that out rather quickly, as the curse of one-party control reared its ugly head. President Bush believed he had political capital to spend, and he tried to use it on a losing campaign to reform Social Security. House Republicans spent their political capital trying to change the rules to protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who was indicted in Texas on state campaign finance charges. And soon, the once-mighty Republican majority looked awfully vulnerable in the face of a floundering majority, a huge ethics problem, an unpopular war and an increasingly unpopular president.
Today, the country has another choice about whether to give all the power to the Democrats or keep a divided government. Here are some virtues to divided government:
• Oversight, oversight, oversight: Oversight often is described as a congressional prerogative, but actually, in divided government, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have the power to highlight abuses on the other side. Divided government inspires more oversight. Yes, some of it is overtly political, but most of it is necessary to keep the cogs of government honest.
• Big deals are easier: On big deals in divided government, both parties have a vested interest in progress. On the really big things that are absolutely necessary for the country but incredibly difficult politically, you need bipartisanship. Political posturing is easy to do when you don’t have to run the government. And when both parties have skin in the game, it makes deals easier to make. Think welfare reform under Clinton or the 1990 budget bill under the elder Bush.
• It is more fun to hate your enemies than to hate your friends: If you work in Congress, there is nothing more frustrating than watching your good friends in the executive branch become arrogant White House jerks who no longer return your phone calls. (No offense to my good friends in the White House who do return my phone calls.)
• It is easier to play good cop, bad cop: Both sides do this. What you say inside the room: “I would cut this deal, but I can’t because those crazy people who make up my base will kill me.” What you say outside the room once the deal is cut: “I tried to get a better deal, but this is the best deal I could get from those crazy idiots who run the other party.”
• The power of the purse versus the veto pen: Congress appropriates the money, but a president who plays it right can get everything the administration wants in its spending bills. The congressional minority will sustain the president’s vetoes as long as the bills are vetoed over the right issues. In divided government, the president has to veto early and often.
• The center holds: In divided government, centrists become the chief deal-makers and the wing nuts in either party become the chief complainers. In one-party government, the wing nuts become the deal cutters, and the centrists are left on the cutting-room floor.
Although I wish it weren’t so, it looks like Congress will remain under Democratic control after the November elections. With that as a given, the American people have a simple question to ask themselves: Do they want the real progress that comes from divided government, or do they want the inevitable overreaching and the all-too-common corruption that will spring from one-party Democratic rule?
John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm, and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.