The Welcome Return of Divided Government

There is a spring in my step and a song in my heart this morning, because the election is over and my party won. Not the Democrats, and not the Republicans. No, the party that deeply distrusts both Nancy Pelosi and George W. Bush: the Divided Government party.

For the last 12 years, Republicans have controlled the House of Representatives, and for most of that time, they also ruled the Senate. During the Bush administration, this has been a bad thing, particularly for people who favored less government, and for people who liked Bush in 2000 because he opposed using the military for nation-building — or, as Condoleezza Rice once put it, having "the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten."

Despite its traditional principles, the GOP’s monopoly in Washington has merely freed Republicans to indulge the empire-building, power-lusting, over-spending, control-freaking elements that all politicians harbor deep in their souls. Government outlays have swelled, government intrusions have expanded, and the only reason the 82nd Airborne no longer escorts kids to kindergarten is that the job has gotten too dangerous.

But though it may be hard to remember now, the Republicans’ original takeover of Congress back in 1994 was a very good thing. This was partly because they had some sound ideas, and partly because Democrats controlled the White House. This arrangement, though unsatisfactory to both sides, created the best of all possible worlds in Washington, by making each party stand guard on the other.

When federal power was last split, some of the GOP’s good ideas became law: replacing welfare with workfare, curbing the growth of spending and forcing the government to live within its means. And many of its bad ideas — authorizing state-sponsored prayer in schools, criminalizing leaks of classified material — went nowhere.

The arrangement compelled Bill Clinton to enter into an ambitious agreement to eliminate the federal deficit, which soon generated something unheard of then and unheard of now: a budget surplus. Though Republican opposition couldn’t prevent Clinton from going to war in Kosovo in 1999, it did force a vigorous debate so Americans at least knew what they were getting into.

Americans didn’t know what they were getting into in Iraq, because the Republicans who controlled Congress facilitated Bush’s rush to war and because Democrats lacked the votes (or the nerve) to block the way. The same one-party consensus gave the president a blank check to do whatever he wanted in the war on terror — whether it was trying to deny the courts any say over Guantanamo, allowing torture of foreign detainees, or wiretapping Americans’ phone calls without bothering to get a warrant.

Not only did their political dominance embolden Republicans to indulge their worst instincts, it led them to suppress their best ones. Upon gaining complete power, they found that spending federal dollars can be an addictive pastime, producing a binge that squandered the surplus. Their desire to return power to the states vanished once they saw how much fun they could have running everything from Washington.

Even conservatives — or especially conservatives — should welcome the return of divided government. Republicans may decide they would rather shift power back to the states than shift it to Nancy Pelosi. Fiscal conservatism could also make a comeback, as congressional Democrats block Republican spending proposals and Bush vetoes Democratic ones.

William Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute and former head of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, points out that over the last 50 years, the only eras of budgetary restraint were the last six years of the Eisenhower administration and the last six years of the Clinton administration — when the opposing party reigned in Congress. During periods of one-party rule, he found, spending increased three times as fast as in periods of divided power.

A revival of fiscal discipline is just one of the potential benefits of breaking up the Republican monopoly in Washington. Maybe the new order will make Republicans more true to their principles, and maybe it will make Democrats more responsible. Or maybe it will just keep either from doing their worst. In any case, we will probably rediscover an old truth: That government is best which unites least.