11/5/2002 12:00:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett
Although the outcome of today's election is not known as this
is written, I can safely predict that the result will be gridlock in
Congress. This will be the case even if Republicans take control of the
Senate and keep the House.
The fundamental reason for gridlock is that it's the way the
Founding Fathers wanted it. They created two legislative chambers that were
elected quite differently (the Senate was originally elected by state
legislatures), with different terms and rules. Thus, even when the same
party controls both houses, there are institutional reasons why they will
differ on the issues.
And of course, the possibility was created right from the
beginning that the House and Senate could be run by different parties.
Moreover, the party controlling Congress could easily be different from that
controlling the White House. In other words, the Founding Fathers understood
perfectly well that they were creating a system in which gridlock would be
the case more often than not. They did so because they wanted power to be
diffused, and to create checks and balances.
These constraints are very powerful and greatly restrict the
ability of one party to implement its agenda even when it has the White
House and a majority in both the House and Senate. Let us not forget that
Bill Clinton suffered his greatest legislative defeats in 1993, when
Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. The stimulus bill died after a
Republican filibuster in the Senate, and health-care reform collapsed
because Democrats in Congress had their own ideas about how to do it.
Thus there is no reason to believe that even if Republicans
retake the Senate and keep the House they will be on easy street. Big issues
that they might like to push, such as Social Security or tax reform, cannot
be pursued without bipartisan support even with a strong Republican
majority. However, even under a best-case scenario, Republicans will not get
a solid majority in either the House or Senate, and would maintain control
by the thinnest of margins.
Political scientists complain about this situation all the time.
On Monday, Norman Ornstein had a piece in The New York Times bemoaning the
fact that nothing will get done in Congress until one party gains the upper
hand. But I don't think most American feel that way. I think they are more
inclined to agree with Will Rogers, who once said: "Never blame a
legislative body for not doing something. When they don't do nothing, that
don't hurt anybody. When they do something is when they become dangerous."
Polls have long shown consistently that, contrary to the
political scientists, the American people like divided government, like
gridlock and don't trust either party to hold all the keys. That is why
divided government has been the norm in the postwar era.
Nevertheless, some analysts suggest that the situation has
gotten worse of late. They talk about a "50-50" nation, in which Democrats
and Republicans are equally matched and continually check each other.
However, I am inclined to think that this situation is less new than people
think. The period in which Democrats controlled Congress for decades was an
anomaly resulting from the significant presence of conservative Southern
Democrats in an otherwise liberal party.
If one adds the Southern Democrats, who usually voted with
Republican presidents on key issues, to the number of Republicans in
Congress, you will find that there has long been about a 50-50 split between
conservatives and liberals. What has changed is that conservatives have
largely been driven out of the Democratic Party. Their seats are now held by
Republicans. But the only thing that is new is party registration, turning
the historical liberal-conservative split into an explicit
It was Newt Gingrich who made this happen. For years,
Republicans had given a pass to conservative Democrats in Southern states.
But he argued that Republicans could never take control of Congress unless
they won these seats. Gingrich then began pressuring these Democrats by
putting up strong Republican candidates against them. Once they had to work
to get re-elected, most simply retired or became Republicans.
It was Gingrich's brilliant strategic vision, which said
Congress' historical conservative majority could be converted into a
Republican majority, that changed the political dynamics. But he was only
taking advantage of an existing conservative base in the nation, which had
been split between Republicans and Southern Democrats, rather than creating
a new conservative electorate.
The political division in Congress will continue regardless of
today's outcome. But it will not be something new or unplanned. It has
really been part of our political system all along.