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Argument: Divided government lifts up better, more centrist ideas

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Steve Chapman. "The Welcome Return of Divided Government". Real Clear Politics. 9 Nov. 2006 - When federal power was last split, some of the GOP's good ideas became law: replacing welfare with workfare, curbing the growth of spending and forcing the government to live within its means. And many of its bad ideas -- authorizing state-sponsored prayer in schools, criminalizing leaks of classified material -- went nowhere.

The arrangement compelled Bill Clinton to enter into an ambitious agreement to eliminate the federal deficit, which soon generated something unheard of then and unheard of now: a budget surplus. Though Republican opposition couldn't prevent Clinton from going to war in Kosovo in 1999, it did force a vigorous debate so Americans at least knew what they were getting into.

Americans didn't know what they were getting into in Iraq, because the Republicans who controlled Congress facilitated Bush's rush to war and because Democrats lacked the votes (or the nerve) to block the way. The same one-party consensus gave the president a blank check to do whatever he wanted in the war on terror -- whether it was trying to deny the courts any say over Guantanamo, allowing torture of foreign detainees, or wiretapping Americans' phone calls without bothering to get a warrant.

Not only did their political dominance embolden Republicans to indulge their worst instincts, it led them to suppress their best ones. Upon gaining complete power, they found that spending federal dollars can be an addictive pastime, producing a binge that squandered the surplus. Their desire to return power to the states vanished once they saw how much fun they could have running everything from Washington.

Even conservatives -- or especially conservatives -- should welcome the return of divided government. Republicans may decide they would rather shift power back to the states than shift it to Nancy Pelosi. Fiscal conservatism could also make a comeback, as congressional Democrats block Republican spending proposals and Bush vetoes Democratic ones.

[...] A revival of fiscal discipline is just one of the potential benefits of breaking up the Republican monopoly in Washington. Maybe the new order will make Republicans more true to their principles, and maybe it will make Democrats more responsible. Or maybe it will just keep either from doing their worst. In any case, we will probably rediscover an old truth: That government is best which unites least.

"Divided We Stand". Ryan Sanger (New York Post columnist), Reason Online. February 2007 - Former Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas—a man who is intimately familiar with the workings of both united and divided government as we’ve experienced it during the last 10 years—put it eloquently. “When I used to stand up and say ‘hell no’ to Bill Clinton, I was always applauded by all the people I love,” Armey recalled when I interviewed him in 2005. “When I stood up and said ‘hell no’ to George Bush, I was berated by all the people I love.”

And it really is as simple as that. When there’s no one around to say “hell no,” both the executive branch and the legislative branch get everything they want. And that invariably means more government—whether you’re talking about pork, a new entitlement program, or radically enhanced government surveillance powers.

"Divided We Stand". The Atlantic. October 2004 - Divided control compels each party to frame a governing agenda and then forces the parties to negotiate if anything is to be accomplished. The result is to drag both parties toward the center. Unified control, in contrast, tempts the dominant party to govern from its own center rather than the country's, leaving the excluded party to hiss and spit from the sidelines.

IN 1981 a band of conservative House Democrats gave Reagan's Republicans effective (though not formal) control of both chambers of Congress. Carried away, Congress passed an even larger tax cut than Reagan had intended, while also increasing federal spending (notably on defense). Luckily for Reagan, the following year the Democratic leadership re-established control of the House. During the rest of his presidency the Democrats used their leverage to moderate his tax cuts and defense increases. They thereby put Reaganism on a sustainable footing and made Reagan himself look good. With the help of the Democrats, Reagan won re-election in a walk and left office with approval ratings well above 60 percent. Divided control also produced the 1986 tax reform, the great reform of the era.

[...]In 1992 the voters placed both branches in the Democrats' hands. Clinton and Congress passed a brave budget that helped break the deficit's back, and the President reached out to Republicans to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement; but then the Democrats went too far, with a partisan health-care initiative that was too complicated and grandiose either to work or, as it turned out, to pass. Luckily for Clinton, in 1994 an angry electorate gave Congress to the Republicans. No longer hostage to his party's liberal congressional leadership, Clinton was free to tack to the center, which he dominated for six years. With the help of the Republicans, Clinton won re-election in a walk and left office with approval ratings well above 60 percent. Divided control also produced the 1996 welfare reform—the great reform of that era.

[...]The lesson is pretty clear. Unified control pushes policy to unsustainable extremes, poisons politics, and embitters politicians and voters. Divided control, in contrast, draws policy toward the center; and by giving both parties a stake in governing, it can lower the political temperature so that even daring changes (tax reform, welfare reform) seem moderate. In other words, divided control makes the country more governable.

William A. Niskanen. "Give divided government a chance". Washington Monthly. October 2006 - For those of you with a partisan bent, I have some bad news. Our federal government may work better (well, less badly) when at least one house of Congress is controlled by the opposing party. Divided government is, curiously, less divisive. It’s also cheaper. The basic reason for this is simple: When one party proposes drastic or foolish measures, the other party can obstruct them. The United States prospers most when excesses are curbed, and, if the numbers from the past 50 years are any indication, divided government is what curbs them.

Michael Merritt. "The Case For Divided Government". PoliGazette. July 8th, 2008 - Next, and arguably the worst, unified government creates a system where checks and balances break down, and the legislative and executive branches begin to take the country in too far of the wrong direction. Whether it’s more toward socialism or more toward laisse-faire capitalism doesn’t matter. When government is unified, the debate necessary to quash bad legislation just isn’t there, and the executive and party in control of the legislature can enact whatever they want without too much effort. Keep in mind that I speak of the kind of unified government that some commenters here are afraid of. That which has a large majority in the House (which the Democrats don’t quite have now but come close) and a filibuster proof majority in the Senate (which the Democrats don’t have now and probably won’t have even after this November).

Jonathan Rauch. "When One Party Rules, Both Parties Fail". The Atlantic. 7 Nov. 2006 - In the 1970s, the Democratic Party still included many Southern conservatives, and the GOP some Northern liberals. Today, by contrast, more or less every Republican in Washington is to the right of more or less every Democrat. The average member of Congress today votes with the majority of his or her party 90 percent of the time. The 2003-2006 Republican era is not the first four-year run of one-party control, but it is the first to have taken place when neither party speaks for—or even to—the political center.

Ideological purity, party loyalty, and Republican control have thus produced an experiment in which a fiercely partisan and ideologically compact minority runs the entire government, locking out Democrats and alienating many independents. Like a one-armed canoeist, this lopsided rule has delivered neither efficiency nor effectiveness.

In September, with the session almost over, The Washington Post noted that the House was "on pace to shatter all records for inactivity." The current House, wrote The Post's Dana Milbank, had passed barely 400 measures. "The 'Do-Nothing' House of 1948 was positively frenetic by comparison, passing 1,191 measures."

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