Steve Chapman

Still, divided government offers tightwads grounds for hope. The biggest one is historical. William Niskanen of the libertarian Cato Institute, who headed the president's Council of Economic Advisers under Ronald Reagan, notes that 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.

Why would that be? It can happen because the parties cooperate in attacking the deficit, as Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich did -- producing the now-unimaginable feat of a budget surplus.

Or it can happen because they disagree on giant undertakings, leaving them to wither on the vine. Niskanen says that when one party has all the power, our leaders are more likely to enact a huge new entitlement (like Medicare under Lyndon Johnson and the Medicare prescription drug benefit under George W. Bush) or plunge into an endless war on the other side of the planet (again, Johnson and Bush).

It seems neither party can help itself from going on benders. It needs the other party to lock up the liquor supply.

The framers of the Constitution split power among three branches of government so that each could keep the others from running amok. What James Madison and Co. didn't foresee was the rise of political parties that would often overcome this safeguard.

When one party has all the power, we have learned to our sorrow, Congress checks the president about as effectively as the levees protected New Orleans. It's different when each party has a share. Republicans, bless their hearts, love nothing better than riding herd on Democrats, and vice versa.

After all the angry charges and negative ads in this campaign, Americans may feel, with even more vehemence than usual, that they don't trust either party to exercise power responsibly. The only consolation is that with divided government, they don't have to.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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