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Ending Divided Government, Bringing Back Checks and Balances

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The end of the George W. Bush Administration will mark the end of a 40-year period during which, for thirty of those years, the White House and at least one House of Congress were controlled by different parties.

The recurring pattern of split government has seemed to embody a conviction among many American voters that divided government - with Democrats and Republicans each in charge of one of the elected branches - was more likely to produce the compromise and consensus-driven government of checks and balances that our founders intended.

This year, however, the reality is very different. The only way to reinvigorate the checks and balances principle in American government is to make sure Democrats control both elected branches.

The logic of this is straightforward. The framers designed a government of checks and balances not to deadlock government action, but to insure that, when the national government did act, it would have to take broad account of everyone's interests and the divergent perspectives of different geographic regions and different economic segments of society.

The way to achieve that goal was through a government of separated powers in which three political institutions, the House, the Senate, and the Presidency - each organized to reflect different constituencies - would have to haggle, bargain, and deliberate their way to public policy conclusions that would serve what James Madison called "the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

Two assumptions, however, lay at the foundation of this vision. The first is that each of the political branches would itself be a genuinely deliberative forum in which contesting interests and points of view would be hammered into a consensus-driven institutional position. The second is that the two elected branches would actually want government to work, so that, whatever differences existed in the institutional positions of President and Congress, they would come together to work out a consensus that would be broadly acceptable to the people.

What has happened since 1981, however, has been a breakdown in these assumptions. The Republican Party has been increasingly dominated by its hard-right wing, playing to an ideologically narrow base, which has too often been uninterested in either achieving political consensus across a wide spectrum of views or assuring the effectiveness of American government as a whole.

Its preference instead has been to stifle dissenting views whenever in charge of either the executive branch or Congress, and to veto even widely supported government initiatives if those projects were ideologically disagreeable to the extreme fringes of the Republican Party.

The Democratic Party does not have the luxury of behaving this way. This is not because Democrats are more virtuous as human beings, but because of the dynamics of Democratic Party politics.

More than the Republicans, the Democrats can prevail only by holding together a base that embodies substantial divergences of economic, social, and cultural interests. As a result, norms of deliberation and consensus-building are inescapable elements of Democratic political strategy. Democrats have to honor the system of checks and balances among our governing institutions because it is only by respecting checks and balances among the competing elements of the Democratic coalition that Democrats can they achieve their immediate political goals.

With the Democrats thus poised as a party of internal compromise and dynamic negotiation, and the Republicans trapped as the captives of an ideological base, Americans have only one realistic choice if they want to reinvigorate our system of checks and balances and make deliberation and consensus-building again the hallmarks of American government. In the near term, at least, they have to allow Democrats to control both elected branches.

One can only hope such a step will shake the Republicans out of their ideological grip and put them back on the path of political pluralism. Until that happens, however, we face the paradoxical circumstance that having the Democratic Party in charge of both elected branches will provide more balanced and effective governance than the split governments we have so recently endured.

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