Will Divided Government Lead to Deficit Reduction? Will It Lead to Anything?

At first blush “divided government” seems like a recipe for endless gridlock. At second blush this isn’t really correct. A lot of significant legislation, from No Child Left Behind to the creation of a Medicare prescription drug benefit to the Balanced Budget Agreement of 1997, the 1996 Telecommunication Act, “welfare reform,” etc. happened in the 1990s and 2000s under conditions of divided government. And David Mayhew’s book Divided We Govern surveys the 1946-2002 period and finds that this is generally the case. It’s not that divided government is the same as unified government, but either way entrepreneurs in congress and in the executive branch have found ways to pass lots of important laws across the partisan divide.

Jackie Calmes writes in the New York Times, however, that she thinks it’s unlikely a new GOP majority in the House of Representatives would lead to a bipartisan coalition for deficit reduction. She paints this picture in fairly broad terms whereby “incumbents otherwise inclined to make deals are now wary, Republicans say privately, mindful of colleagues who lost primary challenges from Tea Party candidates.”

I think we should assume that Calmes is right, but I would put forward another hypothesis about this. There’s unlikely to be a bipartisan deficit reduction deal because conservatives don’t care about the deficit. Dealmaking is possible when people from both sides care about aspects of an issue. No Child Left Behind, for example, appealed to key Democrats like Ted Kennedy and George Miller who thought it was an important tool for focusing educational resources on poor kids and minorities. Many conservatives liked the fact that teacher’s unions didn’t like it. Bipartisan appeal = bipartisan legislative outcome. Similarly, there’s strong support in both parties for a “don’t let major banks collapse” agenda, so the Fannie/Freddie nationalization and TARP got done even under difficult circumstances for cooperation.

But conservatives don’t favor deficit reduction. They favor tax cuts. When the budget was in surplus, both George W. Bush and Alan Greenspan defined the existence of the surplus as a problem for public policy—one that should be solved with tax cuts. You can’t compromise without some element of common purpose.