Social Studies November 2006

When One Party Rules, Both Parties Fail

Like a one-armed canoeist, lopsided rule has delivered neither efficiency nor effectiveness.

In September, Congress was very, very busy not passing appropriations bills. It managed to pass only two fiscal 2007 appropriations bills on time. This was partly because it was busy passing a ban on online gambling—a pre-election gift to the casino industry and Christian populists, one of Washington's least endearing coalitions. (Jack Abramoff, call your office.) It was also busy passing the Student and Teacher Safety Act of 2006, which requires schools throughout the country to allow random searches of students for weapons and narcotics, on pain of losing federal dollars.

Not content with trashing freedom and federalism in separate bills, the House efficiently trashed both together by voting to make it a federal crime to slaughter horses for human consumption. The American Horse

Slaughter Prevention Act would effectively shut down three slaughterhouses. It was reportedly brought to the floor as a favor to Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., whose district, according to National Journal's CongressDaily, "includes the Saratoga racetrack and a strong horse community."

Democrats, who these days style themselves as the competent party, denounced the measure as a waste of precious time when so many 9/11 commission recommendations remain neglected. Then four-fifths of them voted for it. What not long ago was the party of reinventing government is today the party of random government.

Republicans, on the other hand, split on the horse-meat ban. Apparently the principle that Washington should resist the temptation to micromanage every aspect of American life, which once united the party, now divides it.

There's nothing new about election-season silliness. Still, the Republican Congress's September convulsions were also something serious: symptoms of the degenerative disease that one-party rule has inflicted on Washington.

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of people worried that divided control (one party controls the White House, the other all or part of Congress) caused "gridlock." Unified command, these people speculated, would deliver something more like parliamentary government. The president would have political leeway to grasp the nettle of necessary but controversial reforms, and a Congress of the same party would have political leeway to pass them. The hypothesis was plausible on paper. But after four years of Republican rule, it is horse meat.

In today's America, neither party commands a majority and neither enjoys a decisive advantage; self-identified Democrats are more numerous, but Republicans are more likely to vote. The result has been that in the period since the South's Republican realignment ended the New Deal era's Democratic dominance, one-party rule has been rare: just 10 years of it since 1969.

Excluding a few all-Republican months at the start of President Bush's first term, the prior two stretches of one-party rule were 1977-1980 and 1993-1994. Although the former period produced a landmark deregulation of the transportation industry and the latter an important deficit-reduction measure, neither compiled a particularly distinguished record, and both were followed by popular backlash against the governing party.

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."

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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