Richter Scale

Divided Government Revisited

Did the era of divided U.S. government really only begin when the Republicans took over the House?

Takeaways


  • The acolytes of divided government ought to understand that the past is really prologue.
  • As far as Democrats are concerned, the United States lives in a regime marked nominally by divided government on an almost permanent basis.
  • Republicans are imbued with a European-style sense of internal party discipline and do not really tolerate any deviations from the party line.
  • In the United States, effective government, in the sense of unitary government where all key power centers pull in the same direction, can likely only be attained if and when Republicans control all three houses.
  • Whenever Democrats are "in power," as they were for the first two years of the Obama Administration, the United States already lives under a regime of divided government.

Praises aside, there is an even bigger question to be answered: Are the proponents of divided government correct in their often-made assumption that the era of divided government only began in January 2011, with the Republicans officially taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives?

Any true student of constitutional systems and political power, one with at least a touch of international experience, would probably disagree with that line of thinking.

At least, as far as Democrats are concerned, the United States lives in a regime marked by divided government on an almost permanent basis.

How could that be possible? Didn’t Democrats control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as the White House, for the past two years?

Yes, nominally they did. But there are two very real issues that make divided government a permanent reality under the U.S. Constitution.

First and foremost, for legislation even to be considered by the Senate, a party often needs to corral a super-majority of 60 votes.

That’s usually virtually impossible to attain, since there are always a bunch of de facto Republicans among the Democratic senators, given their home states’ political make-up and preferences.

Second, with the country — especially in its non-coastal states — being structurally conservative in its overall orientation and outlook on life, society, politics and the economy, it’s not hard to rally 40 conservatives from the inland areas, even if there are no Democrats among them.

That equation, and the underlying thesis, works differently for Republicans. They are imbued with a European-style sense of internal party discipline and do not really tolerate any deviations from the party line.

This has two consequences: First, in the United States, effective government, in the sense of unitary government where all key power centers pull in the same direction, can likely only be attained if and when Republicans control the Senate, House and the White House.

Second, whenever Democrats are “in power,” as they were for the first two years of the Obama Administration, the United States already lives under a regime of divided government.

So all those who are now singing its praises are really deluding themselves. If they believe the future ahead is bright, because it will, by definition, need to be bipartisan, they are wrong in one critical regard: The past two years were already bipartisan.

Despite the Democrats’ near-super majority (on paper), almost nothing could become law in the United States that did not pass Republican muster — by garnering at least 60 votes in the Senate.

And in order to get there, much of the legislation, whether moved by President Obama or Speaker Pelosi, was watered down to make it palatable to a (however slight) bipartisan majority.

Viewed in that light, rather than happily awaiting a much brighter future, the acolytes of divided government ought to understand that, as regards their preferred power(-sharing) scenario, the past is really prologue.

And that past — not just the past two years, but also the two-year period of the Bush Administration when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress — is not an encouraging one.

For the most part, and certainly compared to the legislative achievements of most other developed nations, the United States merely punted on many important questions.

Bickering between political camps does not replace the tough slog of political compromise, especially not when politicians broadly conduct themselves with such a high degree of vitriol and mutual vilification that one must wonder whether the Civil War ever ended (or at least has broken out again).

If anything has changed with the election results of November 2010, then it is not that we can now look forward to the fruits of divided government — but that, in that permanent regime of divided government, the Democrats’ hand will be weakened even further.

That comes as a surprise to many foreign analysts. To them, it should not be so, simply because the Democrats, technically, still hold the majority in two of the three power centers that matter.

As far as the benefits of “divided government” are concerned, many of the monetarily dominant political interests, including in the Democratic Party, feel this is a turn for the better. The forces of populism, or so they believe, have been reigned in effectively.

That, however, will eventually turn out to be wishful thinking. A more Republican government — for that is what folks now heralding divided government really mean — will, in all likelihood, only mean more postponement of vital reforms, from energy to the environment to regulation.

Viewed in a comparative perspective, it turns out that the United States is not handicapped by its level of government spending, no matter how deafening the chorus of the “cut, cut, cut” brigades.

How could that be? Because almost all advanced nations share that same problem. Therefore, it cannot be something that has the United States in a particular chokehold.

Rather, the scourge Americans have to deal with is the “postpone, postpone, postpone” school of government, of using ominous rhetoric about the need to be fiscally responsible — and then coming up with a bipartisan package that irresponsibly expands the debt even further.

A rational, truly bipartisan nation would surely have agreed to the extension of the unemployment benefits and the cut in the payroll tax — and would have financed those necessary expenditures with an end to tax relief for the top 2% and a fair tax on inheritance.

But sadly it didn’t happen that way. All of which is why the smart global money, based on the recent agreement between Obama and the Republicans, must put its funds on a clear sell signal on U.S. Treasuries.

The only form of bipartisanship that seems to work in the United States is one where both parties hold their nose — and further expand the deficit. But that is very much the story of the past decade, and hence the established track record of divided government.

Given that dismal record, and the ominous prospect of more such “divided” irresponsibility, American politicians — from the President to the new Speaker of the House on down — would be well-advised to change the traditional ending of their speeches.

They usually say: “May God bless America” — very much as an iteration of the fact that he is doing so. Well, he did do so eons ago, but hasn’t done so in at least a couple of decades.

Under those circumstances, the rhetorical closing should move from the reassuring and self-congratulatory “May God bless America” to the much more insistent “May God help America.” Its politicians and people at this stage certainly need divine intervention.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

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