Welcoming the return of divided government

CHICAGO — CHICAGO -- There is a spring in my step and a song in my heart, because the election is over and my party won. Not the Democrats, and not the Republicans. No, the party that deeply distrusts both Nancy Pelosi and George W. Bush: the Divided Government Party.

For the last 12 years, Republicans have controlled the House of Representatives, and for most of that time they also ruled the Senate. During the Bush administration, this has been a bad thing, particularly for people who favored less government, and for people who liked Mr. Bush in 2000 because he opposed using the military for nation-building - or, as Condoleezza Rice once put it, having "the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten."


Despite its traditional principles, the GOP's monopoly in Washington has merely freed Republicans to indulge the empire-building, power-lusting, overspending, control-freaking elements that all politicians harbor deep in their souls. Government outlays have swelled, government intrusions have expanded, and the only reason the 82nd Airborne no longer escorts kids to kindergarten is that the job has gotten too dangerous.

But though it may be hard to remember now, the Republicans' takeover of Congress back in 1994 was a very good thing. This was partly because they had some sound ideas and partly because Democrats controlled the White House. This arrangement, though unsatisfactory to both sides, created the best of all possible worlds in Washington, by making each party stand guard on the other.


That's what we now have again in Washington. When federal power was last split, some of the GOP's good ideas became law: replacing welfare with "workfare," curbing the growth of spending and forcing the government to live within its means. And many of its bad ideas - authorizing state-sponsored prayer in schools, criminalizing leaks of classified material - went nowhere.

The arrangement compelled President Bill Clinton to enter into an ambitious agreement to eliminate the federal deficit, which soon generated something unheard of then and unheard of now: a budget surplus. Though Republican opposition couldn't prevent Mr. Clinton from going to war in Kosovo in 1999, it did force a vigorous debate so Americans at least knew what they were getting into.

Americans didn't know what they were getting into in Iraq, because the Republicans who controlled Congress facilitated Mr. Bush's rush to war and because Democrats lacked the votes (or the nerve) to block the way. The same one-party consensus gave the president a blank check to do whatever he wanted in the war on terror.

Not only did their political dominance embolden Republicans to indulge their worst instincts, it led them to suppress their best ones.

Upon gaining complete power, they found that spending federal dollars can be addictive, producing a binge that squandered the surplus.

Even conservatives - or especially conservatives - should welcome the return of divided government. Republicans may decide they would rather shift power back to the states than shift it to Ms. Pelosi. Fiscal conservatism also could make a comeback, as congressional Democrats block Republican spending proposals and Mr. Bush vetoes Democratic ones.

William A. Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute and former head of President Ronald Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, points out that over the last 50 years, the only eras of budgetary restraint were the last six years of the Eisenhower administration and the last six years of the Clinton administration - when the opposing party reigned in Congress.

Maybe the new order will make Republicans more true to their principles, and maybe it will make Democrats more responsible. Or maybe it will just keep either from doing their worst. In any case, we probably will rediscover an old truth: that government is best which unites least.


Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays. His e-mail is