Posted: Nov 05, 2002 12:00 AM
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 Republican-Democrat division. 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.