POLITICS: Campaigns

Can we --- and do we want to --- avoid gridlock?

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Congress,Michael Barone,Taxes,Campaigns,George W. Bush,Minimum Wage

Pundits love to lament gridlock and seek solutions. I’m not so sure gridlock is so bad, and the solutions I have seen strike me as worse.

One reason is put forward with typical cogency by Stanford and Hoover Institution political scientist Morris Fiorina in the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog. “But what is a majority?” he asks, and points out that there is no conceivable majority on abortion for either the Republican Party position (illegal in all cases) or the Democratic Party position (legal in just about every conceivable case). On this issue a victory for either party would be opposed by most voters.

That argument is weakened a bit by the fact that most -- or at least many candidates -- do not take absolutist positions on abortion (Mainstream media reporters love to pin down the few Republicans who would prohibit abortion in cases of rape and show absolutely zero appetite for exposing the relatively few Democrats who would refuse to outlaw partial-birth abortions). And on some issues you do find all-or-nothing results: Obamacare may be one example. But Fiorina's larger point remains.

In an economically, culturally and regionally diverse country like ours, there is something artificial in polar choices between two positions; and on many issues there may be no real majority for any one position.

Another proposal to avoid gridlock comes from the always thoughtful William Galston in today's Wall Street Journal. He calls for a constitutional amendment providing a four-year term, concurrent with the president's, for members of the House of Representatives. In a period of straight-ticket voting, this would seem likely to give the winning party the ability to pass its legislation.

But perhaps not as much as you might think. Consider our recent political history, over the last 45 years. During that time there has been what I would call a "misalignment" of presidential and congressional voting.

Between 1968-1988 this happened largely because of ticket-splitting, particularly because white Southerners on current issues voted mostly Republican for president but for historical reasons voted mostly Democratic for the House of Representatives. In addition, many entrepreneurial Democratic politicos won and held non-Southern districts by adapting to local terrain and securing UDAG grants and the like --pork! --for their home areas.

As a result, in only one of the six presidential years in this period did the same party win the presidency and the House. That was in 1976, when Democrats nominated a white Southerner and when Democrats going into the election had more than a 2-1 margin in the House — a margin so large as to be hugely unlikely to be overturned even in the sharpest political upheaval.

The 1992-2012 period was a time of increasing straight-ticket voting, but misalignment continues because Democratic voters increasingly have been clustered in certain geographic areas — central cities, sympathetic suburbs, university towns. That helps Democrats in the Electoral College, but hurts them in elections in equal-population House districts. The results in each presidential year:

1992: Democratic president and House. But the Democrats’ hold on the latter was primarily because of the seats they obtained in the 1968-88 period. It did not reflect the views of the electorate on major issues, as the debacle of the Clinton health plan showed. Ideological overreach, including the unenacted "Hillarycare" as well as the enacted tax increase and gun-control measure, resulted in a repudiation of Democrats in the 1994 election.

1996: Democratic president and Republican House. But not pure gridlock. Consider the balanced budget agreement of 1997. Bipartisan cooperation might have continued if Bill Clinton had left Monica Lewinsky’s advances unaddressed.

2000: Republican president and House. But by very narrow margins. George W. Bush lost the popular vote and the Republican House margin was only 221-212.

2004: Republican president and House. By somewhat larger but not huge margins.

2008: Democratic president and House. By the largest margins in this period. But voters in 2010 again punished Democrats for ideological overreach on Obamacare, the stimulus package and other issues.

2012: Democratic president and Republican House.

One difficulty with Galston’s four-year House term proposal is that the last two times voters have given one party both the White House and a robust majority in the House, in 1992 and 2008, they have recoiled from the resulting legislation. You could also make a case for including 2004 in this category; Republicans certainly took, in George W. Bush’s word, a “thumping” two years later. This tends to fortify Fiorina’s argument that having one party in control will tend to produce results the voters will soon regret.

In addition, neither 1992 nor 2006 was a recession year, and in 2010 the economy was in a sluggish recovery. Certainly two — and arguably all three — of these repudiations of the president’s party did not occur because of sharp economic decline.

In fairness to Galston, he is quite aware of the 1992-2012 results and he does not rest his case for a four-year House term on the assumption that one party will win both the presidency and the House and thus have or tend to have British-style parliamentary control. To the contrary, he hopes that split control will push both parties to avoid gridlock more than is the case today. He writes:

“In today's circumstances, four-year House terms would also increase the chances of effective governance. If the winning presidential candidate and House majority are of the same party, the president would have a better chance of enacting promised legislation, giving the people a chance to judge its consequences. If the electorate instead divides the partisan control of the Oval Office and the House, both the president and the leaders of the House majority would be on notice that neither could outlast the other, forcing them to choose between compromise and a full term of gridlock.”

Nevertheless, I think he is proposing a general solution for what may be a particular problem. Any fair reading of the 2012 election showed not only that the Democratic president would be in office for four years but that it was highly likely, though not certain, the Republicans would control the House for four years. His continuing insistence on raising tax rates on high earners and embracing antique policies like the minimum wage, first enacted in 1938, blocked any chance of compromise on policies addressing future problems.

The situation was one in which the choice was very likely, in Galston’s words, “between compromise and a full term of gridlock.” Obama chose gridlock. Another choice was possible, a choice Bill Clinton took after the 1996 election — something of which Galston, who served Clinton as a deputy White House domestic adviser, is surely very well aware of. So perhaps he’s made a case for amending the Constitution—or he’s made a case for electing a president who reads the political signals more like Clinton than Obama.

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