Jacob Sullum

In my neighborhood of Dallas, not far from where George and Laura Bush moved after he presided over eight years of big-government conservatism, I often see signs that say: "Had Enough? Vote Republican!" They remind me of a bad sunburn I suffered during a camping trip last June.

At night, I would lie on an air mattress in our tent, trying to find the least uncomfortable position. I would lie on my left side until the pain became unbearable, then switch to my right side. And so on.

Divided government, which we seem to be on the verge of achieving, promises a better way. Instead of switching back and forth between equally painful alternatives, we combine them, with results that are slightly less painful, like a sunburn on the third day, when the blisters appear.

No one said it would be pretty. But putting one party in control of the White House and the other in control of Congress is supposed to make blind partisanship work for us, checking the worst instincts of both teams.

Or so I reasoned four years ago, when I was rooting for Republican losses in the last midterm elections. "The combination of a Democratic Congress and a Republican president," I wrote, "could not possibly be worse, and might very well be better, than the current arrangement, in which a Republican executive and a Republican legislature conspire to mulct our money and filch our freedoms."

How'd that new combination work out? Not great, I admit, but probably better than the alternative.

Did Bush, as I expected, "suddenly find his veto pen when confronted by free-spending Democrats instead of free-spending Republicans"? Yes, although the payoff was disappointing.

Bush blocked an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (legislation that Barack Obama signed two weeks after taking office). But his farm bill veto, based on concerns that agricultural subsidies were too generous, was overridden, and Congress used accounting tricks to dodge his demand for spending restraint.

The first year of Bush with a Democratic Congress, when spending barely rose, looks good for fans of divided government. But the second year saw a real increase of 5.4 percent, more than in all but one other previous year under Bush.

Spending in fiscal year 2009, which was largely approved under Bush and included the last three months of his second term, jumped a jaw-dropping 18 percent in real terms. Even if you blame it partly on the recession and partly on Obama (who voted for the spending as a senator and pushed more of it as president), it does not make a good exhibit in the case for divided government.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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