The separation of power is an essential element in our constitutional structure. It is designed to limit aggregation of power at the federal level at the expense of the people and to foster competition and a balancing mechanism among the three branches of government: the legislative, executive and judicial.
Here is how it works: When Congress objects to an action (or inaction) by the president, it can pass a law or withhold or increase an appropriation; the president can veto a bill passed by the Congress; with a two-thirds vote, Congress can override the president’s veto; the Supreme Court can declare a law passed by Congress and signed by the president unconstitutional; Congress can pass, and the president sign, a new law overriding the court’s decision; and so on and so forth.
Therefore, it should not be a surprise that, in recent times at least, the legislative and executive branches both fair better when they are in different party hands and thus freer to pursue their institutional aims. Put another way, Obama may yet quietly celebrate his party’s failure to attain a filibuster-free 60-vote Senate, and indeed, at some point, he may long for the divided government that saved Clinton’s presidency and that could have greatly benefited his successors.
The problem that dogged both Bill Clinton (for his first two years) and George W. Bush (for the first six) is that having both branches in the same party’s hands made it very difficult for either president to resist overreaching and overspending by their legislative partners. When Newt Gingrich took over the House in 1994, however, he was liberated to pursue his own agenda. He became master of his own house, took charge of what had been a very fragile beginning period of governance and developed an agenda that put him in charge of the government with, to his credit, many accomplishments–like welfare reform and spending restraint–that would have been near impossible otherwise.
By the same token, where Gingrich was liberated, Bush was trapped by his legislative party leaders in a spending spiral that dispirited his party base and limited his policy options. His loss of party control of the Congress resulted, perhaps counter-intuitively, in a more sure-footed presidency. He was freer to proceed with the highly successful surge in Iraq and to respond with greater flexibility to the financial crisis when it hit. One can only speculate whether he could have had more success in reigning in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and other excesses of the housing crisis if he could have “taken off the gloves,” as it were, with the Congress earlier.
It is sometimes said that at the end of the day, the two national parties are not the Republicans and Democrats, but rather the White House Party and the Congressional Party. As noted above, they were supposed to compete as well as collaborate. But when they are controlled by the same party, the dynamics seem to bring out the worst in both–collaborating either to overspend or to paralyze.
Bush 43 was able to achieve a tax cut and No Child Left Behind before the bad behavior began, but not much thereafter. His father, by contrast, was faced with a solidly Democrat-controlled Congress and yet still managed a rich record of legislative accomplishments–the Americans with Disabilities Act, Clean Air Act, Civil Rights Act of 1990, the first important energy bill that initiated integration of the power grid and, last but not least, savings and loans reform legislation that cleaned up the banks and help set the table for the great economic growth of the 1990s and beyond–a cleanup that Japan could never accomplish for its own banks, with more than a decade of stagnation as a result.
Armstrong Williams content can be found on RightSideWire.com. He is also the author of the new book “Reawakening Virtues.” Come join the discussion live 4-5 p.m., 6-8 p.m. ET at www.livestream.com/armstrongwilliams or tune into S.C. WGCV 4-5 p.m., Sirius/XM Power 128, 7-8 p.m. and 4-5 a.m. ET, 6-7 p.m. D.C. a.m. 730 WTNT, 7-8 p.m. WGNU a.m. 920 St. Louis. Become a fan on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.