A House Divided

Divided government works. Or at least in the U.S. it works better than having one party in charge.

I think that will be the message voters will have sent come Wednesday morning. We live in a peculiar form of democracy known as a constitutional republic. In most other western democracies, they practice a parliamentary form of governance.

In the latter system, which I watched closely while I lived in Canada, when one party takes over, it assumes total control of both the legislative and executive branches (except in the case of a coalition government, but that’s another matter). There’s more accountability in a parliamentary system, but if the party in power goes too far, a vote of non-confidence can be called, which in most parliamentary systems mandates new elections within 30-60 days.

We have no such mechanism in the U.S., so the next best thing is for different parties to control Congress and the White House. One prevents the other from overreaching.

Recent history bears this out. As noted by the Cato Institute, over the past 60 years, federal spending has risen least when one party occupied the White House and the other had control of at least one house of Congress.

Consider what transpired in 1994, when President Bill Clinton saw his party lose both houses of Congress to the Republicans. What happened? Clinton decided to focus on a balanced budget with Newt Gingrich rather than face united GOP opposition to any more big programs such as healthcare reform.

The result? Several years of peace and prosperity. The only other modern era with a similar stretch of fiscal restraint was during the divided Eisenhower era. The Reagan era, however, was mostly divided but not marked by fiscal restraint.

I suspect that’s because the Gipper had bipartisan support for two popular items: tax cuts and an expensive defense program that ultimately helped bring down the Soviet Union. Fortunately, those two initiatives did make for a roaring economy for most of Reagan’s tenure.

So if Republicans gain control of one or both houses of Congress, it might not be a bad thing for Democrats. Indeed, it might even save Barack Obama’s troubled presidency.

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