A Vote for Gridlock

As we move into the campaign homestretch, Republicans and their talk radio friends are doing everything they can to browbeat every last right-leaning voter into pulling the Republican lever one more time. Failure to do so, they tell us over and over again, will bring untold misery — higher taxes, terrorist attacks, gay marriage, cloning or whatever else gets the yahoos to the polls.

Well, this is one Republican who has never voted for a Democrat in his life who will do so this year for the first time. I will cast my inaugural Democratic vote in the sincere belief that continued Republican control of both houses of Congress and the White House is not in the national interest and is harmful to the conservative agenda I have worked all my life to implement.

It is critical to remember that the Founding Fathers explicitly rejected a parliamentary form of government. In such systems, the prime minister is elected by the legislature. Therefore, the head of government will necessarily always have a majority in the legislature.

The Founding Fathers thought such a system would make it too easy for undesirable legislation with merely transitory popularity to become law. Conversely, it would be too easy to change existing laws when party control reversed. Instead, they favored a system in which it was hard to pass legislation, thus preventing the enactment of bad laws and giving policy changes more permanence.

This would be accomplished, the Founding Fathers thought, by having the president and the legislature elected by very different methods and various other devices, such as staggering terms for senators. They knew that by doing so there was not only the possibility but the likelihood that Congress and the White House would be under the control of different parties much of the time.

The postwar era is a good example. We’ve had unified government — one-party control of the executive and legislative branches — in 26 years and divided government, where one party was in a position to check the other, in 35 years. Most often, this involved a Democratic Congress and a Republican president. But we also saw a Republican Congress and a Democratic president from 1994 to 2000.

I think the American people like divided government. They don’t trust either party to run the whole show and believe deeply in the separation of powers that the Founding Fathers established in the Constitution. To most people, dividing government by political party is just another way of separating power.

Bill Niskanen of the Cato Institute points out that every war in American history that lasted more than a few weeks was authorized by a unified government. It’s also worth noting that every major entitlement program — the spending programs that are bankrupting the country — was enacted by unified governments.

Party loyalists on both sides argue that unified government is required to get things done. But what if government is doing bad things? Getting more done is not desirable — a "do-nothing" Congress would be far better.

I believe that the good economic times of the late 1990s resulted largely from gridlock — Democrat Bill Clinton couldn’t get his plans through a Republican Congress and he blocked its initiatives. So for a blessed six years government was basically on automatic pilot. The result was budget surpluses instead of deficits, low unemployment, high wages and a skyrocketing stock market. Who wouldn’t go back to those times if we could? Bringing back gridlock could to the trick.

At the same time, gridlock was no barrier to the passage of genuinely popular legislation, such as welfare reform, or the confirmation of well-qualified judges. One reason welfare reform worked so well, in my opinion, is that both parties had a stake in it. If Republicans had rammed it into law without a Democratic president’s endorsement, Democrats in the bureaucracy and at the state and local level might have felt that it was illegitimate and sabotaged its implementation, making it a failure instead of a success.

Columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum also notes that divided government often helps the passage of legislation with broad support that is opposed by special interests. Neither party will want responsibility for killing it, and so they both push it forward. If one party were shut out of power, however, it would be easier for it to oppose even an overwhelmingly popular measure out of sheer partisanship.

In short, when I vote Democratic next week for the first time in my life, what I am really voting for is gridlock. I am not voting for the Democratic Party’s policies, most of which I still oppose. Rather, I am voting for change, congressional oversight and White House accountability. I am voting against Republican corruption and out-of-control spending. If that takes putting Democrats in charge of Congress, then so be it.