Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Is Divided Government the Ticket?

As the discerning Kate has pointed out in a thread, the classic Cato (or libertarian policy wonk) case for divided government as the best or even only way to slow the growth in federal spending has been revived in many quarters of late. Friends of genuinely limited government, the argument today goes, should welcome and even help in the likely Democratic takeover of Congress as the most effective way to begin to deal with the fiscal damage done by our utterly undisciplined Republicans, both the president and in Congress. Here’s the most recent and pretty powerful if not finally persuasive (to me) version of the case for a calculated choice for the Democrats this time. (Actually, I might be persuaded if I thought fiscal policy is the main thing or the most important thing.) It’s certainly an argument the Republicans must begin to address to win in November. They have to start talking and acting as if fiscal competence and discpline, not to mention the idea of rigorously limited government, genuinely mattered to them.

Discussions - 4 Comments

The piece referenced, by Mr. Slivinski of the Cato Institute, is thoroughly unpersuasive -- except to make the thoroughly familiar point that the Republican Congress in the Bush years has spent like crazy.

That is not the question. The question is whether or not more fiscal conservatism can be expected from THE DEMOCRATIC CONGRESS WE WOULD SEE IN 2007 combined with THIS Republican president. There is no reason to think so.

Slivinski takes 40 years worth of data
and pronounces "divided government" to be fiscally more conservative. While 40 years sounds like a lot, it isn’t, for this kind of question. The issue isn’t how many years he has. It is how many cases -- of (relatively) fiscally responsible divided government -- and what else might explain those cases. I think it is telling that Slivinski does not discuss any particular case, except, fleetingly, the Clinton years.

I don’t know fiscal history as well as I should. But I would offer this:

Case 1: Nixon/Ford and a Democratic Congress, 1969-1976. It’s not as well understood as it should be that the House of Representatives in its decades of Democratic control was, in many years and on many issues, actually controlled not by a coherent Democratic party, but by the "conservative coalition" -- Republicans plus Southern Democrats, who in those days tended to be genuinely conservative. Together, they often formed a majority in the House. While the Southern Democrats were more conservative on social issues and foreign policy than on economics, I think it could be shown that by the Nixon years they were not the big-government enthusiasts that they perhaps once were. In addition, due to the old seniority system, they had enormous clout on committees. In the Ford years, the "conservative coalition" was displaced by a liberal and arguably leftist majority, thanks to the disastrous 1974 election. But thankfully, President Ford was a fiscal conservative who used the veto vigorously and for the most part successfully. We can thank Ford, not the Democratic Congress, for fiscal restraint during his presidency.

Case 2: Reagan and the divided Congress (Republican Senate, Democratic House), 1981-1986. Again, Reagan was a fiscal conservative (if less so than some would give him credit for). Again, in 1981-82, the conservative coalition often controlled the "Democratic" House on key votes. It was the last time this coalition can be said to have functioned with any consistency. The areas in the South which sent moderate Democrats to Congress now send Republicans.

Case 3: Reagan/Bush and a Democratic Congress, 1987-1992. Here, I would offer Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, a set of fiscal restraints enacted by a divided Congress in, I believe, 1986.
The prime movers here were senators Gramm and Rudman, both Republicans, and Hollings, at the time a genuinely moderate Democrat (arguably an almost extinct breed). For a few years, Gramm-Rudman, and Bush I’s vetoes or veto threats, exerted some restraint on congressional spending.

Case 4: Clinton and a Republican Congress, 1995-2000. 1995-97 or ’98 can be explained in terms of idealism: Gingrich’s easily forgotten and now underappreciated conservative leadership, plus the "citizen legislator" mentality of fresh new representatives in the House. For Republicans, these were idealistic times. They acted like real Republicans. That idealism was broken by the party’s losses in the 1998 elections, which we should have won.
Arguably, it has been going downhill ever since.

The Clinton years are the only case Slivinski discusses, and they had a Republican Congress, not a Democratic one, which is what’s at issue now.

The House chairmen in 2007, if the Dems take Congress, will not be sensible, old-school Southern Democrats. They will be hard-left ideologues for the most part. The congressional Democratic party is well to the left of where it was in the Nixon years. I suspect it could be demonstrated to be somewhat to the left of where it was in the Reagan and Bush I years. As for the Clinton case, it is simply irrelevant, because it was a Republican Congress. But Mr. Slivinski wants, and is arguing for, a Democratic Congress.

If he can come up with a liberal Democratic Congress and a fiscally liberal Republican president
(comparable, that is, to Bush II) that controlled spending better than it’s been controlled in the last three years, we can then begin to take the argument seriously. I’m not holding my breath.

David F., Nice job. Write that up and get it published. Otherwise I may plagiarize it. I would only quarrel because you give no credit at all to Clinton for fiscal good sense and at least some restraint.

Thanks. It’s a tempting thought, but I have to finish my dissertation. Please go ahead and run with it. We need to stop this flood of rationalization by people who don’t realize that politics is always a game of second-best, at best. Who, in other words, have little qualification to analyze politics, even if they understand money.

About Clinton, I’d say it was Clinton under the constraints of a Republican Congress. To some extent, of course, he successfully demonized and snookered them (simultaneously, more or less). But he also felt he had to say, "The era of big government is over." As someone shrewdly pointed out, Clinton never actually said, "Big government is over." Just the era, whatever that means.

That term "era" meant nothing as did the statement and of course Mr. Slivinski only really talks about the Clinton years because it is the best case libertarians have on this issue.

Just a little point, David, but in the Nixon years my memory is that it was the Southern Democrats who primarily served as a brake on the growth of government in that day. Am I right in my remembrance? I recall the Nixon and many Republicans being all for government spending when they felt they could control where the spending went. I know you aren’t really speaking about statistics here, but that rate of growth in the Nixon/Ford years, while nothing compared to the Johnson/Kennedy years, was still pretty considerable. It is considerable to think about, too, in that it was an addendum to those J/K years of huge increase.

The point that the question is whether or not more fiscal conservatism can be expected from THE DEMOCRATIC CONGRESS WE WOULD SEE IN 2007 combined with THIS Republican president. There is no reason to think so. is well put. But still. Is it a quibble to wonder why prescription drug benefits are beneficial, while national health care was appalling? Which, perhaps, makes your point in that such a drug plan, legislated by a Democratic Congress, might have turned into a national health care plan by the accretion of other "needful" things.

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