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Divided Government Usually Means Gridlock

• November 04, 2010 • 4:19 PM

There’s likely one area of agreement for both the main political parties in Washington, D.C.: We expect to get little done in the next two years.

Barack Obama stood behind the podium at the White House on Wednesday after his party took a historic drubbing in the midterm elections and forecast the calm, constructive path that lies ahead. He will get together with Republican John Boehner, the likely speaker of the House come January, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and together the long-warring politicians will find common ground on tax cuts, energy policy and job creation.

“What we’re going to need to do, and what the American people want, is for us to mix and match ideas, figure out those areas where we can agree on, move forward on those, and disagree without being disagreeable on those areas that we can’t agree on,” he said. “If we accomplish that, then there will be time for politics later.”

This is a nice vision, and Obama’s first White House social with the newly empowered Republicans has already been given a feel-good moniker: The Slurpee summit!

History, though, predicts a different scene. Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University and a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, doubts Obama and Boehner will agree on Slurpee flavors, much less any substantive policy in the two years to come. Divided government in Washington, more often than not, doesn’t force parties to the center for compromise; it causes gridlock.

“The caveat is that we can’t tell all that much from divided government alone,” Binder said.

Divided government (also known by its nicer name, “shared power”) has in the past produced some big things: the Clean Air Act in the 1970s and tax reform in the 1980s (both executed with Democratic Houses and Republican presidents), and welfare reform in the 1990s (with a Democratic president and a Republican Congress). But those governments all had something the 112th Congress will lack in a big way.

“If you look back to the ’60s and ’70s, how could a divided government be so productive? Well, 30-40 percent of the chamber were ideological moderates,” Binder said. “If you need large bipartisan majorities to get much done, and you don’t have 60 votes by yourself, then moderates in the middle make a big difference. And we don’t have any of that today.”

In fact, polarization in the capitol — already at historic highs — grew worse Tuesday night, with moderates heavily picked off by voters. The “Blue Dog” Democrats in the House lost half their caucus on election night.

This means that we head into 2011 with a paralyzing pair of factors in Washington: Government is divided, and the two parties sit particularly far apart. There’s no perfect historic analogy for this moment, Binder said, although the era ushered in by the 1994 midterms may come closest.

“Things do get done in divided government,” she warned. “But more gets left undone.”

Even if the two parties are able to find areas where they can agree, as Obama suggests they can, that’s not a promise of compromise, either. Republicans, after all, found a pretty successful strategy the last two years in refusing to do just that, on principle.

Binder was stumped as to whether historic patterns can help predict when parties will behave this way — refusing to compromise as a political strategy in and of itself.

“For a while we all thought it had to do something with the size of the majority,” she said. The smaller the in-party’s majority, the more likely the minority party is to think control is within reach if it just digs in a little longer. “But [now] I’m not so sure about that. We’ve had oversized Democratic majorities and no less digging in of the heels by the Republican minority.”

Some Republicans have been blunt about their intentions not to bend, and the Tea Party is sending candidates to town explicitly with a no-compromise mandate. The best hope may be that the parties begrudgingly work together, each in search of the credit for reviving the economy.

But an energy bill, immigration reform, a deficit solution — history says they’re not likely.

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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