You don't have to go back to ancient history to find out that divided government doesn't have to mean government gridlock.
Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid proved that from 2006 to 2008. During those two years -- not long ago -- Democrats controlled both houses of Congress while Republican George Bush occupied the White House.
Then, like now, there was an enormous gulf between the parties. There were deep divisions over the Iraq War, the nation's economy, tax policy and the level of federal spending. Yet despite the massive ideological chasm that stood between Democrats and Republicans, the Congress came together with the president to pass a number of important pieces of legislation that benefited ordinary Americans.
The difference between then and now: leadership from the Speaker of the House. Nancy Pelosi got things done; John Boehner abdicated his leadership role to the tea party and Senator Ted Cruz. Instead of working with Senator Reid and President Obama to pass legislation that reflected the will of Congress and the American people, Boehner actively obstructed legislation that was supported by the majority of voters and the majority of his congressional colleagues.
Return for a moment to 2006. After Democrats took control of the House for the first time since 1995, Pelosi worked with Senate Majority Leader Reid to pass:
• The groundbreaking President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) that experts say has saved the lives of several million people through the treatment and prevention of AIDS. That President was George W. Bush.
• An extension of SCHIP, the State Children's Health Insurance Program that continued coverage for some 6 million children.
• An economic stimulus package that included refundable tax credits (rebates) to low-income people who don't earn enough to pay taxes.
• A first in a decade increase in the minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to $7.25 per hour.
• The passage of the landmark expansion of consumer protection, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, making children's toys and durable products such as cribs much safer.
• Largest investment in veterans' health care in the 77 year history of the VA, and a new GI education bill.
• Largest expansion of college aid in six decades.
All of these initiatives were passed by both Democratic-controlled houses of Congress and signed by Republican President Bush.
After the stimulus package was passed, then-Minority Leader John Boehner said:
"You know, many Americans believe that Washington is broken, but I think this agreement will show the American people that we can fix it and will serve to move along other bipartisan agreements that we can have in the future."
Contrast Pelosi's effectiveness -- and Boehner's statement -- with Boehner's own record as House Speaker.
Since 2010 when Republicans took control of the House, Boehner has:
• Refused to bring a bipartisan immigration reform bill to the House floor, even though the bill passed the Senate with a whopping 67 votes, polls showed it is was overwhelmingly supported by the voters -- and it would have passed the House had it been called for a vote.
• Refused to call a bill increasing the minimum wage -- even though it also was overwhelmingly supported by the voters and would have passed the House had it been called for a vote.
• Refused to call a Senate passed bill that would renew long-term unemployment compensation benefits, even though it was supported by a majority of voters and the bill had enough support to pass in the House.
• Refused to consider any economic stimulus legislation that would invest in infrastructure or materially improve the performance of the economy -- a move that many economists believe have costs the economy hundreds of thousands of jobs.
• Refused to consider legislation allowing student loans to be refinanced at lower rates that would cut monthly student loan payments.
• Held 54 separate votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act -- an action that would strip every American of a catalogue of consumer protections, allow insurance companies to once again charge exorbitant prices to people with pre-existing conditions, and would take health care coverage away entirely for over 10 million Americans.
• Insisted on cutting funding for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) -- even though they are the tip of the spear in the world-wide battle against Ebola and other infectious diseases. And for good measure irresponsibly did his best to spread fear over the non-existent "Ebola epidemic" in the United States.
Speaker Pelosi was able to pass meaningful legislation despite an ideologically diverse cause (think Blue Dogs), because she made sure that her members understood that even though they might disagree on many things, their job was ultimately to negotiate a compromise and take action to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.
But the fact is that Boehner personally created the new environment of gridlock with own his decision to abdicate his leadership to the tea party.
He too could have passed meaningful legislation to reform immigration, increase the minimum wage, stimulate the economy, cut student loan payments, and extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. All he needed to do was allow these measures to come to the floor of the House for a vote. Boehner could have accomplished something too -- had he exercised leadership.
Boehner wanted stalemate. He wanted government to fail, because he thought it that failure benefited Republicans politically.
Nancy Pelosi could have behaved exactly the same way between 2006 and 2007. After the Democrats took back the House in 2006, she could have done the same thing to George Bush that Boehner did to President Obama. She could have elevated her perceived partisan interest over the interests of ordinary Americans -- but she did not. She chose instead to exercise leadership in the interest of ordinary Americans.
In the end, of course, Democrats won the presidency in 2008 and held on to the House and Senate. That in turn allowed the most productive period in modern congressional history -- between 2009 and 2010. During those two years the Democratic-led 111th Congress worked with President Obama to:
• Rescue the economy from the economic free fall they inherited from President Bush -- avoiding another Great Depression.
• Create millions of new jobs through a major stimulus program.
• Pass landmark health care reform that had eluded Presidents for almost a century.
• Enact a fundamental overhaul of the apparatus set up to regulate the Wall Street speculators who caused the Great Recession.
• Put in place a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
• Set the stage for reducing the deficit from 9.8 percent of GDP when Bush left office to 2.8 percent of GDP today.
• End "Don't Ask Don't Tell."
As Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman argues, these accomplishments -- and many others -- make President Obama one of the most consequential presidents of modern times. And his partner was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In fact, President Obama's signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, would never have seen the light of day, had it not been for the iron will and legislative prowess of Nancy Pelosi.
Now, as Republicans take control of both Houses of Congress, we will all see whether House Speaker John Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will follow the example of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid when they were in the minority, or whether they will continue down Boehner's current path of abdicating leadership to Ted Cruz and the tea party.