There has been a great deal of discussion recently about what issues will determine the congressional elections next year.
Will it be corruption and cronyism? Will it be terrorism and national defense?
I think the elections may turn on something much simpler. It is quite possible that the determining factor will be the public attitude about unified government vs. divided government.
In other words, is the public content with the concept of one party controlling both the executive and legislative branches of government? Or does the public want to return to divided government, with one party controlling the executive branch and the other party controlling at least one house of the legislative branch?
This is not just an academic question. For 33 of the last 50 years, the public has decided in favor of divided government, not trusting one party to control all the levers of power.
Since 1956, there have only been four periods of time, totaling 17 years, when the same party controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency. These periods were 1961-68 (Kennedy and Johnson presidencies); 1977-80 (Carter presidency); 1993-94 (first two years of the Clinton presidency) and 2003-present (most recent three years of Bush presidency).
Bill Clinton had to deal with divided government for six of the eight years of his presidency, and Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush had to deal with it during their entire presidencies. Dwight Eisenhower faced divided government for the last six years of his presidency.
Why has the public intentionally opted for divided government so often?
First, when the opposition party controls at least one house of Congress, it can conduct vigorous oversight hearings into how the executive branch is doing its job. Certainly, the Republican House of Representatives made the Clinton administration justify virtually everything it was doing. Democrats took a similar approach during the Nixon presidency.
Next, and this should give conservatives real pause -- it is easier to create expensive new government programs when one party controls both the executive and legislative branches. Exhibit A includes Medicare during the Johnson presidency and the new prescription drug benefit during the Bush Presidency.
Additionally, control of all the levers of power does not alone guarantee that deficit spending will be curtailed. It is a big-spending Republican Congress working hand in glove with a Republican administration that has brought us the staggering deficits of the past few years.
In fact, you can argue that it was the constant prodding of a Republican Congress that encouraged President Clinton to balance the budget during the late 1990s.
Politicians have always questioned whether the public makes a conscious decision in favor of divided government when many voters go into the polling booth and split their ticket -- voting for a president of one party and a congressman and senator of the opposite party.
No one can answer that question with absolute certainty because local issues and personalities often enter into a voter’s decision about which congressional or senatorial candidate to support.
However, we do know that in two-thirds of the elections in the past 50 years, voters have refused to give one party total power.
Most other Western democracies operate under a parliamentary system whereby one party or a coalition of parties always controls both the legislative and executive branches at the same time. Our founding fathers opted for a different system. They set in motion a system with co-equal legislative and executive branches. They didn’t necessarily contemplate political parties, but that was the inevitable result of the system they established.
It will be interesting to see if the American public once again opts for divided government in 2006.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel, and is currently a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.