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The Wonder of Divided Government

Posted By Ben Shapiro On June 28, 2011 @ 12:34 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 25 Comments

Last week, Congressional Republicans and Vice President Joe Biden came to an impasse over the debt crisis.  House Majority Leader Eric Canter (R-VA) announced that he was pulling out of the negotiations over deficit-reduction because he refused to countenance tax increases.  Senator Jon Kyl walked out the door with him.  “We’ve reached the point where the dynamic needs to change,” Cantor said.  “It is up to the president to come in and talk to the speaker.  We’ve reached the end of this phase.”  Biden tried to play it as a victory, even though it was a clear defeat.  “As all of us at the table said at the outset, the goal of these talks was to report our findings back to our respective leaders,” Biden stated. “The next phase is in the hands of those leaders, who need to determine the scope of an agreement that can tackle the problem and attract bipartisan support. For now the talks are in abeyance as we await that guidance.”

Gridlock.  Stagnation.  Stalemate.

It’s a beautiful thing.

In fact, it’s exactly with the founders intended.  The Constitution was designed specifically to prevent precipitous and dramatic action.  As David Rivkin, a Department of Justice lawyer with the Bush Administration, writes, “The Framers achieved … stability by generally requiring a high level of consensus in support of governmental action.  Accordingly, the Constitution deliberately makes achieving ‘legislative accomplishments’ difficult.”

The problem arose, however, when in the early 20th century, progressives like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson dismissed the Constitution as archaic and obsolete, upset that it prevented enough from being done.  Wilson suggested, “Justly revered as our great constitution is, it could be stripped off and thrown aside like a garment, and the nation would still stand forth clothed in the living vestment of flesh and sinew, warm with the heart- blood of one people, ready to recreate constitutions and laws.”  Since then, government has done just that – stripped the Constitution off and thrown it aside like a garment.  But the more we have strayed from Constitutional principles, the less we have stood forth as a people, and the more we have decayed in entrepreneurialism, manly spirit, and strength.

Both political parties have strayed from Constitutional principles.  Republicans have spent as well as Democrats, embracing the “living Constitution” in order to forward their political agenda.

The American people have responded the only way we have known how: by dividing the government against itself.  From 1930-1970, we had split government – meaning one party in control of the presidency, and another party in control of either the House or the Senate – just four times.  From 1970 onward, we’ve had it no less than 14 times.  The press can’t understand it.  Why would Americans vote for Republicans in Congress and Democratic in the presidential races, or more commonly, vice versa?  Why wouldn’t they embrace one party or another?  Why the seeming schizophrenia?

It’s because Americans have a gut instinct that by dividing the branches of government – by pitting interest against interest, faction against faction – we can artificially recreate Constitutional mechanisms.  We can force the government to do nothing, to leave us alone.

It’s borne out in the statistics, at least in part.  When Democrats dominate Congress and the Presidency, as they did 17 times from 1930 on, they spend an average of 19.2 percent of GDP on government.  When Republicans dominate Congress and the Presidency, as they did just five times from 1930 on, they spend approximately 16.8 percent of GDP on government.  Divided governments spend an average of 19.8 percent on government.  Split government, it would seem, is the worst of the three possibilities in terms of curbing spending.

That statistic is misleading, however.  It doesn’t take into account what the divided government was taking over for.  Divided governments typically arise from Democratic-dominated governments, and they typically lower the percent of GDP spent on government.  When Democrats take over again, they raise it up again – but because their starting point is low, their average of GDP percent spent on government is artificially low.  Take, for example, the period from 1951-1961.  In 1951 and 1952, Democrats ran the show; they spent an average of 16.8 percent of GDP on government.  In 1953 and 1954, Republicans took over, and proceeded to jack up spending to 19.6 percent of GDP.  Then the government was split, with Democrats taking over Congress and Eisenhower remaining in the White House.  The next two years, government spending declined to 16.9 percent of GDP, then increased moderately back up to average 18.3 percent in 1960 and 1961.

That seems to be the pattern.  The same thing happened from 1967 to 1977.  It happened again from 1995-2001.  On average, Republican dominated government increases spending by 1.1 percent of GDP; Democrats increase spending by 2 percent; and divided government decreases spending by about 1 percent.

Are we crazy?  Absolutely not.  Government is.  When we have to purposefully elect people of two different parties just so that they’ll both leave us alone, we’re in serious trouble.  Unfortunately, that currently seems like the best solution – unless Republicans can show us they’re truly serious about cutting spending this time.

Ben Shapiro is an attorney and writer and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, and author of the upcoming book “Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How The Left Took Over Your TV” from Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.


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