The Glory of Gridlock

One of the great media gripes over the past several decades has been “Washington gridlock,” meaning a period when one party controls the presidency and the other has majorities in one or both houses of Congress. Given the institutional bias towards activist government -- virtually every “crisis” story in the press comes with an implied plea for the authorities to “do something” -- it’s not surprising that the media can’t stand it when the government is divided and significant new legislation is a rarity.

But the media is not the nation, and not a few observers outside the MSM tend to value divided government as their favorite variety. As my old partner in blogging Stephen Green memorably put it:

I love divided government.

Divided government often means gridlock, and gridlock usually makes it harder for politicians to launch expensive new programs -- programs which usually rob Peter to pay Peter to not do things Paul doesn’t like Peter to do, while providing tax breaks to both Peter and Paul, unless Peter and Paul are a gay couple attempting to live normal suburban lives together, in which case Peter and Paul can go [blank] themselves, which they were going to do anyway, which is the usual result of all new government programs, only less expensive and meddlesome.

And Steve has a point. The most significant recent spell of divided government fell during the latter half of the 1990s, when Democrat Bill Clinton faced off against a brand-new majority Republican Congress, the first such pairing since the late 1940s. We look back today on the Clinton/Gingrich period as a rare moment of fiscal sanity thanks to the budget surpluses that ran from 1997-2001, but the reality of those years lay much less in clever economics than in plain, old-fashioned personal enmity.

Each side has a preferred version of history here. The Democratic narrative asserts that a “pragmatic” Clinton administration manned by uber-technocrats like Robert Rubin and Larry Summers "ran the economy" to such an efficient level that booming tax receipts and wise budgeting led to a surplus. The Republican narrative just as strongly declares that a noble GOP congress reigned in Clinton’s tax increases and would-be Great Society Junior expansion of government spending, leading to a period of general prosperity.

Both narratives contain germs of truth. After the electoral upheaval of 1994, Clinton (who, unlike Barack Obama, had experienced losing an election himself) had the good political sense to trim his sails, giving more authority to the relatively business-friendly Rubin camp and much less to the Hillary/Robert Reich left faction. But not even Clinton’s Goldman Sachs Masters of the Universe could have predicted, managed, or controlled the tech boom and ensuing productivity explosion that accompanied it.

It’s notable that the economy remained relatively anemic from 1992-1995 (the “worst economy since the Great Depression” of Clinton’s campaign rhetoric actually recovered in early 1992), only hitting its stride about 1996. Some of the credit for that has to go to the new “obstructionist” Congress -- although the record here is also not entirely cut-and-dried. While it’s certainly true that the Gingrich Congress brought much-needed stability by standing firmly in the way of further liberal legislation like the massive 1993 tax increase or HillaryCare, spending in the following Bush/Hastert years tends to indicate that once in power, Republicans were considerably less fond of limited government than they were in maintaining that power through spending.

The fact is that with the notable exception of welfare reform, neither side got much of anything they wanted from 1995-2000. There were few if any major new programs legislated -- which must have driven Clinton straight up the wall -- but on the flip side, tax rates stayed static when the Gingrich revolutionaries would have preferred major cuts, or better still, broad-based structural tax reform.

Certainly Bill Clinton never anticipated or seriously wanted to deliver a balanced budget (by the time he did so in 1998, it was clear that the opportunity for big new programs had long since passed). The GOP produced a famous advertisement in ’96 showing Clinton promising to balance the budget after multiple numbers of years -- but never that year.

Similarly, Clinton’s campaign pledge to “end welfare as we know it” was likely intended to be just as empty as the never-realized "middle-class tax cut." Clinton fought the Gingrich welfare reform effort tooth and nail for nearly two years before being convinced by strategist Dick Morris in the summer of 1996 that signing it would guarantee his reelection.

Likewise, Newt Gingrich must look back on his tenure as House speaker today and wonder why he didn’t get more done. Taxes remained relatively high; the "middle-class tax cut" promised by Clinton in 1992 didn’t actually arrive until after George W. Bush took office in 2001. Again, with the exception of welfare reform, the edifice of big government remained in place -- but it should still be noted here that it did not grow significantly during that period. Neither side could agree on budget priorities, so in the end both wound up essentially defaulting to a fairly mild rate of annual increase. That essential inaction, plus the tech/productivity boom, brought on the until-then inconceivable sight of consecutive balanced budgets.

The truth is, all that happened not because of wise executive leadership or innovative legislation, but rather because the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue just plain hated each others’ guts. Neither side wanted to give the other any resemblance of a political win, and both dug in for a long, nasty haul. Nothing much happened legislatively, and very little policy that either side promoted became law. And on balance, that inactivity was a beneficent feature, not a bug.

All this isn’t to say that divided government is a perfect situation. Large programs can’t be started, but they also can’t be reformed -- although as we’ve seen recently, that inertia isn’t unique to divided eras. Neither Obama nor Clinton could ram through socialized medicine, even with large Democratic majorities. George W. Bush also failed when he attempted to reform the Social Security entitlement (something Clinton lacked the interest or political courage to try), in no small part thanks to an immovable Democratic minority. Bush did push through an expensive, Democrat-demanded prescription drug benefit, but that’s the exception that proved the rule: when both sides of the aisle want to expand government, they usually succeed.

But taking issue with Stephen Green, it’s also far from clear that the ideal government contains a Democratic president facing a Republican Congress. Regardless of who controls Capitol Hill, the executive cabinet departments exercise vast power thanks to the last 70 years of government growth. One need only look at the destructive buffooneries of Eric Holder or Janet Reno and Napolitano to appreciate how much damage a bad administration can wreak without any help from Congress. Flipping the presidency around, liberals understandably squawk about the treatment of favored departments like the EPA or Labor during Republican administrations.

The one thing that hasn’t been tried in modern history -- not since Calvin Coolidge sat in the Oval Office -- is a small-government Republican president with a like-minded congressional majority. Reagan dealt with a Democratic House for his entire presidency, and no other GOP president since Silent Cal has seriously endeavored to limit -- much less reduce -- the size of the federal government. Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Bushes 41 and 43 -- in domestic policy these were all variations on the theme of big-government Republicanism.

There’s certainly no guarantee that we’ll see that kind of united government soon, or indeed ever, but it would be edifying to see if it could work. We could do worse -- and we usually do.