Would Divided Government Be Better?

September 3, 2006 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Arizona Republic on September 3, 2006.

When the Republicans won control of both Congress and the White House in 2000, many conservatives believed that smaller government—a Republican promise since Ronald Reagan sat in the Oval Office—was just around the corner. Instead, the president and the congressional GOP leadership expanded government faster than at any time since the 1960s.

Many conservatives no longer see the Democrats in Congress as the biggest impediments to tackling Big Government. Instead, they see the GOP leaders in Washington as the problem. That could have dire implications for the GOP in the 2006 elections.

The fiscal damage of the George W. Bush years is an awful legacy for the Republicans to stand by as they head into a critical set of congressional midterms and presidential primaries. After adjusting the total growth in the federal budget by length of time in office and inflation, so far George W. Bush is the biggest‐​spending full‐​term president since LBJ. The spending binge isn’t being driven by the war on terror or the operations in Iraq, either. Only 15% of the entire Pentagon budget over the past five years was devoted to funding these operations.

When the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, government swallowed 20.7% of GDP. When Clinton left office, federal outlays equaled only 18.5% of GDP. This trend reversed almost immediately after George W. Bush’s inaugural parade. Together Bush and a Republican Congress managed to expand government spending to 20% of GDP in 2006. Now voters are stuck with a choice between the party of Big Government (the Republicans) and the party of Even Bigger Government (the Democrats). With choices like that, conservatives may not be eager to pull the lever for Republican candidates in 2006.

The lack of enthusiasm for big‐​spending Republican candidates has hurt the GOP before, specifically in the mid‐​term congressional elections of 1998. At that time, GOP leaders had foisted upon taxpayers two budgets that abandoned the Republican Revolution’s promise of smaller government and topped off the insult with a pork‐​laden highway bill. (Sound familiar?) Instead of picking up seats, Republicans lost three in the House, cutting their majority there almost in half.

Why? Exit polls showed that turnout for self‐​identified conservatives dropped 6% from 1994 to 1998. In a mid‐​term election that close – Republican House candidates received only 2% more votes in the aggregate than the Democratic candidates did – Republicans needed the help of fiscal conservative voters. But those voters were clearly peeved that Republicans had lost their backbone and decided to stay home on Election Day.

If history repeats itself this November, it’s worth pondering whether a loss of Congress by the GOP would be a bad thing for supporters of limited government. After all, government grows slower when at least one house of Congress is controlled by a political party different than the president’s—a condition known to political scientists as “divided government,” or popularly known as “gridlock.”

Since 1965, government has grown slower in periods of divided government than in periods of united government. On average, united government tends to lead to a 3.4% annual increase in federal spending in real per capita terms—over double the growth under divided government: 1.5%.

When you look at the data in terms of how fast government grew in relation to the economy, the results still favor divided government. The average yearly increase in government above and beyond GDP growth is 25 times faster when one party has a monopoly over both the legislative and executive branches than it does when gridlock is present.

The one thing you can usually count on in Washington is partisanship. When Republicans are the beleaguered minority—or a congressional majority fighting a big‐​spending White House—they are in their element. Big Government is the clear enemy. But once they find themselves in control of it all, they don’t rein each other in. Instead, they egg each other on.

We can see this by comparing how a GOP Congress treated the proposed non‐​defense budgets of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. During the years of divided government under Clinton, a sort of gridlock ensued. The Republican Congress managed to cut Clinton’s domestic spending requests by an average of $9 billion each year between fiscal 1996 and 2001.

Contrast that with the budget outcomes under President Bush—specifically the years in which Congress was held entirely by Republicans. Between fiscal years 2003 and 2006, Congress passed, and Bush refused to veto, non‐​defense budgets that were an average of $16 billion more than the president proposed each year.

The rules of partisanship imply that a Big Government scheme proposed by a Republican president is more likely to be accepted by a Republican Congress than if it were proposed by a Democrat. That’s exactly what happened with the passage of Medicare drug benefit, which would probably not have passed if it were proposed by, say, President Al Gore or President Hillary Clinton.

Divided government is the norm, not the exception, in modern American politics. Over the past 42 years, for instance, there were only 13 in which united control of the legislative and executive branches of government existed at the federal level. The presidencies of Johnson and Carter account for nine of them. The past four years under George W. Bush account for the rest. What we’ve seen in the past few years—a consolidated Republican majority—may simply be an anomaly. But based on the record, the question for conservatives in this election year is whether their cause might be better off if congressional Republicans finally spent some time in the political wilderness.

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