To the Members of the 112th Congress:
In the negotiations over increasing the national debt ceiling, one fact is so obvious it has barely been mentioned: America has a government that can be, and currently is, divided. A Democratic president and Senate majority leader sit at the table with a Republican Speaker of the House.
Were the configuration otherwise, as it was between the 2008 and 2010 elections when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives as well as the Senate and the presidency, the debt ceiling debate would probably not be taking place at all. When Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress passed an increase in the debt ceiling in 2010, Republican legislators made some critical speeches but the bill moved swiftly to President Obama's desk for signature.
The possibility of divided government inheres in a constitutional republic where both houses of a bicameral legislature and the head of the executive branch are all elected by the people, but not by the same people at the same time. As our civics textbooks teach us, each Representative is elected for two years by voters in one of the 435 congressional districts. Senators are elected every six years, state-by-state. Because those six-year terms are staggered, only one third of the Senate faces the voters in any given election, while the entire membership of the House does. Presidents are elected every four years by the entire, constitutionally organized, national electorate.
Divisions like America's could never occur in a parliamentary democracy where the people elect the entire legislature at once. The party that wins a majority forms a government, and the prime minister – a member of the legislature, as are all the cabinet members – submits legislation that his party invariably passes. Such systems have been described as "dictatorships punctuated by elections."
More than a century ago, the American Progressives began their historic assault on our constitutional system, yearning for the clarity and dispatch of a parliamentary system. Woodrow Wilson, for example, sought sweeping reforms that would "make self-government among us a straightforward thing of simple method, single, unstinted power, and clear responsibility." H.L. Mencken, Wilson's contemporary, offered a less celebratory expression of the same idea: "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."
One strand of the political philosophy woven into the Constitution is that sometimes the people don't know what they want, and other times they think they do, only to wind up regretting their "settled" opinions after some reassessment. The Constitution's authors believed, as one of them stated in Federalist 63, that "where the concurrence of separate and dissimilar bodies [such as the House and Senate] is required in every public act," the republic is best prepared to navigate "particular moments in public affairs when the people . . . may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn." The objective, as we have had several occasions to observe in these letters, is that "the cool and deliberate sense of the community" will "ultimately prevail."
Each party would clearly prefer to deal with the debt ceiling, and the nation's long-term fiscal problems, on its own terms, with both houses of Congress and the presidency under its control. If the Democrats had their way, that would mean higher taxes, especially on the rich; more borrowing, especially until the unemployment rate is much lower; and few spending cuts, especially from domestic programs. If Republicans controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, they would emphasize spending cuts, especially to domestic programs; less borrowing; tax reforms to apply lower, simpler tax rates to a broader, more vigorous tax base; and regulatory reforms to stimulate economic growth.
Which approach best reflects "the will of the people"? That may be a question that doesn't, at least for the moment, really have an answer. It's not as though either party's philosophy has been hidden over the past years, or undergone profound changes. The voters knew what they were getting when they gave Republicans control over all the federal elected branches from 2002 to 2006, and then when they disliked the results, and chose to check a Republican president with a Democratic House and Senate. The voters knew, or should have known, what they were getting when they empowered Democrats to run everything in 2008, and then again two years later when they decided to return the Republicans to a majority in the House to curtail the Democrats' policy-making latitude.
It would be fair to say, in other words, that the electorate has serious misgivings about both the Democrats' "big government" approach and the Republicans' "limited government" one. After signing up for either, the people quickly succumb to buyer's remorse and avail themselves of the opportunity to weaken or impede the "mandate" they conferred an election or two ago.
Americans didn't used to hedge their political bets this way. From 1900 to 1980 the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives were controlled by the same party for a total of 56 years, 70% of the time. Those 56 years included 14 consecutive years of Democratic control, from 1932 to 1946, when the New Deal was launched, and eight more from 1960 to 1968, which saw the beginning of the Great Society.
By the time the ballots from the 2012 election are counted, the same party will have controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency for only 8 of the preceding 32 years, or 25% of the time. This new era, in which divided government is the rule rather than the exception, was ushered in by the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, and GOP victories that gave the party its first Senate majority since 1954.
It's hard to believe that these two developments – the emergence of a credible conservative opposition to the governmental activism promoted by FDR and LBJ, and the beginning of a long era in which partisan majorities are rare and transient – are coincidental. Roosevelt and Johnson spoke to and for an American majority that liked the benefactions big government bestowed. Reagan spoke to and for a majority grown skeptical about the taxes, borrowing, and regulatory intrusions big government required.
That skepticism was sufficient to slow the growth of big government, but not to dismantle the New Deal/Great Society. For the past thirty-one years the American people have straddled an untenable position: voting in favor of most of what big government does, but against most of what big government requires. The debate in Washington over the debt ceiling is an echo of the debate, across America, over the proper scope and cost of government, a debate that seeks a resolution it has not yet found. The cool and deliberate sense of the national community will ultimately prevail, but it must first settle on one or the other of two alternatives that are fundamentally opposed.