Will a Divided Congress Mean Gridlock?

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As the fall campaign nears its end, there's much fear and loathing about what would happen if Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats took over the House. The Republicans claim it would result in higher taxes, weakened national security and slower economic growth, all charges the Democrats dispute. But observers on both sides of the political aisle seem to agree on one thing: an era of unprecedented gridlock could soon descend upon Washington. With partisan Democrats in control of at least one chamber of Congress and the Bush Administration riding out its last two years in the White House, the thinking goes, the nation's capital would descend into endless hearings, investigations and political scoresettling — and no legislation would get through.

But it's not necessarily so, and here's why: historically, there is actually little difference in the legislative productivity of Washington under divided government versus one-party rule. David Mayhew, a political science professor and congressional expert at Yale University (full disclosure: I took one of his courses several years ago) found that from 1947 to 1990, an average of 13 major laws were passed when one party controlled all the levers of power, compared to 12 when the President had to deal with either one or both houses of Congress being controlled by the opposition. (He counts all laws that were included in articles by The New York Times wrapping up each congressional session, http://pantheon.yale.edu/~dmayhew/data3.html)

And as Mayhew argues, this pattern has held true since then — even as countless pundits have bemoaned how much more poisonously partisan our nation's politics has become. Two of the most productive legislative sessions over the last 16 years were in 1995-1996 — when a G.O.P.-controlled Congress and President Clinton passed 13 major laws, including a massive deregulation of the telecommunications industry and a welfare reform bill that drastically reshaped how the federal government and states supported low-income people — and 2001- 2002, when President Bush joined a Democrat-dominated Senate in authorizing two wars and passing the Patriot Act and the No Child Left Behind education law. Neither the 2003-04 nor the '05-'06 congressional sessions, when Republicans have had control of the House, Senate and the presidency, eclipsed the first two Bush years in terms of major legislation. In fact, perhaps the most important domestic policy achievement of the last decade — and one both Democrats and Republicans remain proud of — was that 1996 welfare bill that has helped spur dramatic decreases in the welfare rolls and the number of children living in poverty.

One of the major reasons that divided government can also be productive government, Mayhew notes, is that Congress doesn't just pass things in a vacuum. After 9/11, both parties felt a need to take steps to protect the country, leading to passage of the Patriot Act, creation of the Homeland Security Department and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also Presidents tend to overreach more when one party controls both the executive and legislative branches of government. Think of President Clinton's failed campaign to create universal health care in 1993 and President Bush's brief flirtation with radically restructuring Social Security in 2005; in both cases the Senate derailed legislation with the threat of a filibuster. It's also possible that when power is shared in Washington, individual members feel less secure and are more focused on the first priority of every office-holder in Washington: relection. "Sometimes it's in the interest of both parties to put something on the books," says Mayhew.

So what does this mean for 2007 and 2008, if Democrats do win one or both houses of Congress? Certain kinds of legislation that the G.O.P. has passed over the last four years over Democratic opposition, such as tort reform and and limits to late-term abortions, probably wouldn't be put on the floor for votes if Democrats ran the House. And Mayhew's research does show that hearings and investigations increase dramatically with divided government, as one party seeks to embarrass the executive branch of the other. So expect to see lots of subpoenas flying from the offices of Democrats Henry Waxman and John Conyers, who would head the Government Reform and Judiciary committees, respectively.

On the other hand, it's easy to imagine the passage of an immigration reform bill that includes some kind of guest worker program, which the G.O.P.-controlled House has opposed. Congress is due to reexamine the No Child Left Behind law next year; concerns about how it works, along with support for its goal of measuring student progress through test scores and boosting minority student achievement, are shared by both parties. And members of both parties have long talked about expanding health care coverage to make sure no children go without insurance.

If the Democrats win one house of Congress, this situation won't be that unusual. The title of Mayhew's book on this subject is Divided We Govern and that's become increasingly true. Twenty out of the last 30 years, the government has been divided. The conventional wisdom has always been that voters actually prefer having the wheels of power paralyzed so that politicians can't do anything too stupid. But maybe it's quite the opposite, and voters know exactly what they are doing.