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By D.G. Martin D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit unctv.org/ncbookwatch.

The myth of divided government

By D.G. Martin Posted October 1, 2012 at 7:38 pm

Is there anything good that has come from the last two years of deadlocked government in Washington? Will our current “My way or no way, no compromise” political culture have any beneficial result?

Maybe it is this: the myth that a divided and deadlocked government is a good thing for our country, that myth is dead.
We have heard that myth from some pretty smart people, though mostly by those who think government is the worst enemy of our country. Their myth-making goes something like this: “When Congress and the president are from different parties, they do not agree on much.  So there are fewer new laws, programs, and regulations, which drive up the costs of doing business or operating the government.”

Writing in 2003, the late William A. Niskanen, then chairman of the Cato Institute and former acting chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, made a case for divided government. “Our federal government may work better (less badly) when at least one chamber of Congress is controlled by a party other than the party of the president.”

Niskanen made three major points to support his argument: (1) “The rate of growth of real (inflation-adjusted) federal spending is usually lower with divided government.” (2) 
 “The probability that a major reform will last is usually higher with a divided government because the necessity of bipartisan support is more likely to protect the reform against a subsequent change in the majority party.” He cited Regan’s tax laws of 1981 and 1986. (3) “The prospect of a major war is usually higher with a united government, and the current [Iraq] war makes that clear.”

Sounds good, but these arguments and the myth they support collapse against the exploding tsunami of political and financial crises that resulted from the current round of divided and deadlocked government. No comprehensive jobs plan, no deficit reduction plan, no agreement on taxes.

The threatened 10.0 Richter scale explosion that would accompany a fall off the “financial cliff” would be the crowning consequence of our divided government’s inability to act.

In the face of governmental indecision about taxes, spending, regulations, and fiscal policy, individuals and businesses find it almost impossible to plan for investment and spending.

They need decisions and actions from their government.

Sometimes, a decision, even one that is not the best, is better than no decision. I remember a veteran Army instructor shouting at me in officer training school as I was trying to direct a platoon attacking an enemy hill. “Come on Lieutenant, just make a decision, please. Even a bad one would be better than your just standing around thinking about it.”

Contrary to the divided government myth, when there is a crisis, government inaction is not a good thing

It is especially true for businesses trying to plan. “Just tell me what the rules are going to be,” is their plea.

A long time ago when I was a lawyer, one of my clients reacted to the legal advice I was giving him about what he could tell a prospective purchaser of a resort real estate lot. My legal jumbo had confused him. 

 “If you will just tell me clearly what I can and cannot do, then I can go to work. Whatever the rules are I can find a way to sell. I can sell anything. Give me a bucket of horse droppings (not his word) and I can sell it. I will go door to door and find somebody who needs fertilizer for the flowers in her garden. But just tell me the rules, not all these maybes and on-the-other-hands.”

Americans are like my client. They need decisions and clear guidelines and they are not getting them from divided government.

One thing is for sure: the myth about the great benefits of divided government can be put to rest.
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