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Divided government holds spending, warmongering in check


CHICAGO - Back in the mid-1960s, the nation was mired in a war with no end in sight, our leaders were creating entitlements with reckless abandon and critics were accusing the president of deceiving the public.

Today, the Army says it may keep troops in Iraq through 2006, the price of the new Medicare drug benefit is already soaring and the administration is trying to explain all the things it said about Saddam Hussein that weren't true.

It's no accident that the era of Lyndon Johnson, a liberal Democrat, parallels that of George W. Bush, a conservative Republican. The two men have one crucial thing in common: presiding over a government controlled by one party.

LBJ was able to push through his legislative program, enjoy a free hand in Southeast Asia and get away with misleading the public about the war because Republicans provided only a puny counterbalance. Besides occupying the White House and holding a majority in both houses of Congress, Democrats had the upper hand on the Supreme Court.

Now it's the Democrats who are shut out of power in all three branches, leaving the GOP with an open field.

United government calls to mind the old axiom that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Both parties have their flaws and excesses. But divide power between them, and those shortcomings shrink. One-party dominance usually means too much of a bad thing. That's what we're getting today.

The pattern represents a sharp reversal from the recent past. During the Clinton years, the United States stayed out of major wars, the federal budget went from big deficits to big surpluses and the most notable presidential deceptions were about matters that didn't involve life and death. This is not because Bill Clinton was innately conservative and cautious. It's because for most of his time in office, Republicans controlled Congress.

Democrats like to take credit for the budget surpluses we enjoyed then. But it was Newt Gingrich and Co., after capturing the House in 1994, who forced Mr. Clinton to accept a step-by-step program to eliminate the deficit. Republicans also offered spirited resistance to Mr. Clinton's decision to intervene in Kosovo - one reason the United States waged the war entirely from the air rather than using ground troops.

Back then, federal failures were blamed on "gridlock" - a condition in which nothing gets done because the two sides can't agree. But gridlock served as the people's friend.

You could even regard gridlock as the intent of the framers. When they wrote the Constitution, they had two goals. As James Madison put it, "You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself."

Their method of doing the latter was to allocate powers among the different branches of government. "The constant aim," wrote Madison, "is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other."

William A. Niskanen, the former Reagan White House economist who is now chairman of the Cato Institute in Washington, says checks and balances work best when government is divided. History indicates, for example, that "the rate of growth of real spending is higher when government is unified." The smallest spending increases over the last half-century occurred under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and President Bill Clinton, both of whom faced an opposition-controlled Congress for most of their terms. The highest growth rate, Mr. Niskanen says, came during the Kennedy-Johnson years, when Democrats were in charge at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But Mr. Bush, with the help of a Republican Congress, is bidding to outdo LBJ.

Mr. Niskanen has also noticed something else. The United States, he says, has never initiated a war involving more than a few days of ground combat under a divided government. Presidents are constrained from military adventurism when the opposing party holds the purse strings. When they can count on faithfully partisan support from Congress, as Mr. Bush did in the showdown with Saddam Hussein, they take bigger risks.

In the old commercial, former New York Yankees manager Billy Martin listened to two guys arguing about the merits of Miller Lite: "Less filling!" "Tastes great!" The usually opinionated Mr. Martin, asked to take sides, replied, "I feel very strongly both ways."

If you're trying to choose between the Democrats and the Republicans this year, here's a better idea: both.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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