Voting by Objective

HOPE for Divided Government

The Question

What do you expect to accomplish by offering your support to a political party and casting a vote for a particular candidate? How and why do you choose to vote for a particular candidate for President, Senator, or Representative?
  • Do you vote exclusively for a particular party? 
  • Do you vote for a candidate you find likeable? Someone you'd have a beer with? 
  • Do you vote for the most qualified candidate, the “Best Man”? 
  • Do you vote for the lesser of two evils? 
  • Do you vote to advance an ideology? 
  • Do you vote for particular political policy objectives? 

The Answer

Dividists do not cast their vote:
  • For a specific political party.
  • Because they like a candidate's personality.
  • Guessing which candidate is the "best man".
  • Based on what a candidate promises in a campaign.

Dividists do cast their vote:
  • Based on policy objectives.
  • Informed by empirical evidence of expected outcomes in a divided government.
  • With the expectation of realizing specific political policy objectives.
  • For policy objectives derived from a set of philosophical beliefs about how we choose to be governed.
  • For political policy objectives that are informed by the word and intent of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Voting by Objective - Dividists vote for these policy objectives:
Federal government should be limited in scope, provide for common defense, protect and respect individual rights, spend and tax in a fiscally responsible manner, resist military adventurism, provide strong and effective oversight of elected and appointed representatives, legislate carefully and slowly, and pass only laws that are tempered in the fire of partisan debate.
Dividists vote in the hope and expectation of moving our government and country incrementally toward these objectives.

Many would identify these objectives as a centrist, moderate and/or small "l" libertarianish perspective.

While major political parties and candidates may pay lip service to some or all of these objectives, there is no empirical evidence that these policy objectives can reliably be accomplished by voting consistently for either major party or a third party. At best, Republicans and/or Democrats, given a free hand, can be relied on to move our government toward some of these objectives while simultaneously moving away from others. Voting for a 3rd party like the Libertarian Party has proven to be a futile exercise, resulting either in a meaningless protest vote or, due to the “spoiler” effect, as a vote that is as likely to move the country further away from these libertarianish objectives as move us closer to them.

If you want to vote like a dividist for the policy objective listed here, there is an effective way to do just that.  Movement toward accomplishing these objectives can be accomplished at the ballot box. Not by voting exclusively Republican, Democratic or 3rd party, but by voting consistently for divided government.

Documentation and Scholarship

The assertion that we can move toward these objectives by maintaining divided government is not a campaign promise, not an empty hope, but practical, documented, empirical, historical fact supported by academic research and scholarship.

Here are the major policy objectives a Dividist can expect to improve in a divided federal government as compared to a united federal government - along with brief descriptions and citations that support that expectation:

Objective 1) Greater fiscal responsibility and restrained growth of spending.
William Niskanen & Peter Van Doren showed that the annual growth in federal spending in the modern era (since WWII) is significantly less pronounced during periods of divided government than during periods of unified single party rule. From 1949 to 2000 they found a mean increase of 1.02% increase of real per capita federal expenditures during periods of divided government as opposed to a mean increase of 5.00% during periods of unified government.  Stephen Slivinski updated the numbers in his 2006 book Buck Wild and again in 2010. He shows  that “between 1965 and 2009, the average growth rate of real per capita federal spending in the divided government years was 1.9%. For the years of united government, that average was 3.1%”.  Slivinski's numbers include the massive increase in spending in the divided government aberration year of  FY 2009 (bracketing the Bush TARP bailout and Obama stimulus) arguably divided governments greatest failure. However, on average, since the GOP took majority control of the House and reinstated divided federal government in 2011  through 2016, federal spending increases have continued to moderate and  deficit numbers have continued to improve in favor of divided government. Particularly when compared to the unified Democratic party control during the first two years of the Obama administration. Again, after the Republicans took unified one party control in 2016, spending and deficits have spiked. 
Objective 2) Better, more carefully considered, and longer lasting major legislation.
There is both quantitative and qualitative aspect to this objective. In his seminal work Divided We Govern David Mayhew debunked the conventional wisdom that our federal government  legislates more effectively with unified single party control. He showed there is no quantitative empirical evidence to support the notion of a less productive or less effective Congress during periods of divided government vs unified government in the modern era. 
Qualitative assessments of whether major legislation passed during divided government is better or lasts longer without major revisions is an argument that lends itself to more anecdotal evidence.  Niskanen points to The Reagan tax reforms of 1981 and 1986, and the Clinton welfare reform of 1996 all passed during periods of divided government. 
Because both parties had ownership in that compromise legislation, neither has subsequently advocated for repeal or wholesale revision.  Major reform passed by a divided government may be more likely to last for the simple reason it is so difficult to pass any major reforms during divided government.  Anything of substance that does get through a divided partisan Congress must have sufficiently broad support from the electorate that both parties feel compelled to compromise whether they like the final legislation or not. 
As a counter example, the Affordable Care Act - aka “Obamacare” -  is an example of a major reform passed during a period of unified Democratic Party rule which seems unlikely to escape major modification in the future.  Passed on a purely partisan vote during the short-lived Democratic Senate supermajority in 2009, the act has never proven to be popular in national polls and millions of Americans continue to register disapproval of the act years after becoming law. 
It's likely that steamrolling that partisan legislation through Congress was, to a large degree, responsible for voters cutting short the Democrats two year stint of unified single party control of the government. Undoubtedly the Affordable Care Act would have been a better, cheaper and more popular law if the Democrats had no option but to compromise with Republicans as opposed to simply needing to compromise only with other Democrats in order to pass the legislation.
Objective 3) Greater congressional oversight of executive branch and reinforced constitutional checks, balances and separation of power.  
It is pretty simple. If you want effective congressional oversight of the executive branch, at least one house of Congress must be held by a different party than the President. Otherwise party loyalty may lead some congressional chairs to abrogate their constitutionally assigned oversight role and take potential executive branch abuse and overreach insufficiently seriously. This is the crucial point made by congressional historian Norman Ornstein in his book Broken Branch. Published in 2006 while under the yoke of Republican One Party Rule  Ornstein wrote 
“...unified Republican government in 2001 transformed the aggressive and active GOP-led Congress of the Clinton years into a deferential and supine body, one extremely reluctant to demand information, scrub presidential proposals, or oversee the executive...” 
After the Democrats reestablished divided government in 2006, the number of oversight hearings spiked dramatically, including hearings on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Constitutionality of the Patriot Act,  abuse of National Security letters by the FBI, mistreatment of veterans at Walter Reed, torture of enemy combatant detainees, and the potential politicization of the Justice Department when the employment of eight District Attorneys were summarily terminated. 
A similar phenomena followed the 2010 midterms when Republican regained majority control of the House and ended two years under the yoke of Unified Democratic One Party Rule. In the last six years of the Obama administration we saw investigations and oversight hearings into: the conduct of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by the administration; NSA abuse of Patriot Act provisions for the surveillance of Americans; executive branch assertion of authority to unilaterally authorize and execute kill lists with drone strikes; the attack against the Benghazi embassy; Justice Department malfeasance in the “Fast and Furious” gun trafficking scandal; and politicization of the I.R.S. selectively enforcing tax law against conservative PACs.
Executive branch oversight is a constitutional responsibility of Congress. They're much better at it when the congressional majority is not the same party as the President. 
This same theme was also explored in Daryl J. Levinson and Richard H. Pildes paper Separation Of Parties Not Powers.  The authors make the case that in real world Washington DC politics, a state of unified, disciplined partisan political control of the legislative and executive branch renders constitutional separation of powers virtually moot. In their conclusion they offer suggested improvements in the electoral process and to legislative rules that might moderate the deleterious effects of single party control. There is, of course, an alternative and possibly easier fix. The problem is solved by never electing unified single party control of both the executive and legislative branch.  Given our roughly balanced polarized partisan divide in this country, a relatively small group of committed independent voters consistently casting their vote for divided federal government can correct this constitutional oversight on their own.
Objective 4) Less corruption, less special interest influence and greater oversight of the “fourth branch”.
In his book The Case For Gridlock, Marcus Ethridge shows how special interests secure outsize influence on policy when they can focus their lobbying efforts and financial resources on a relatively small group of agency administrators, bureaucrats, and Congressional oversight committees. Special interest issues take the force of law without going through the messy, slow, inefficient, more transparent and unpredictable Constitutional law-making process that is subject to legislative gridlock – particularly during periods of divided government. Ironically, by fetishizing legislative efficiency (“We just need to get things done!"), by delegating legislative intent to the “fourth branch” of bureaucratic executive branch agencies, the door swings wide open to special interests distorting and co-opting legislative intent. The unintended consequence of bypassing the inefficient constitutional law-making framework by vesting more power in agency rule-making, is to make policy more vulnerable to special interests undermining the legislative branches constitutionally mandated responsibilities. 
In a complementary conclusion James Alt and David Lassen use the state governments as an experimental petri-dish for comparative analysis in their paper Political and Judicial Checks on Corruption. They find clear empirical evidence of a higher incidence of corruption in unified vs. divided governments in the states. This comports with common sense and anecdotal evidence of increased corruption during all recent examples of unified one party rule in Washington D.C. In fact, it is the seemingly inevitable corruption and overreach that emerges during periods of unified one party rule that is often the last straw for voters before a wave election restores divided government. So it was in 1994 with the corruption exemplified by Dan Rostenkowski and Speaker Jim Wright. So it was in 2006 with the corruption exemplified by Jack Abramoff and Speaker Dennis Hastert. So it was in 2010 with the reaction against the partisan pork barrel borrow and spend ARRA stimulus lardfest exemplified by Jack Murtha and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Although, in 2010, the partisan Democratic party overreach of the Affordable Care Act was an even greater factor in that election outcome.
Objective 5) Lower likelihood of major wars and fewer nation building exercises.
In addition to finding an empirical correlation between divided government and restrained federal spending growth  in their paper Some Intriguing Findings About Federal Spending, William A. Niskanen and Peter Van Doren noted another significant finding:
"… the prospect for a major war has been substantially higher under a unified government. American participation in every war in which the ground combat lasted more than a few days – from the War of 1812 to the current war in Iraq – was initiated by a unified government. One general reason is that each party in a divided government has the opportunity to block the most divisive measures proposed by the other party... We find it hard to dismiss the implications of a nearly 200 year old pattern in which the American participation in every war involving more than a few days of ground combat was initiated by a unified government. Divided government may have the lowest rate of growth of real federal spending per capita, in part, because it has been an important constraint on American participation in a war."

The statistical significance of this finding is real but open to question.  Is it an example of correlation but not causation?  Possibly. FWIW, this finding was further buttressed with the launch of the elective Iraq War during the period of Republican unified one party rule in 2003. Because the correlation does exist, and because of the potential overwhelming importance of this finding, we're including it here as one of the salutary policy objectives that can be realized during periods of divided government.

Net net - Better Governance

A dividist will look at these objectives – greater fiscal responsibility, restrained spending across the board, better oversight of the executive, less corruption, constitutional protections reinforced, less special interest influence, and fewer wars and say – that is good governance. I am going to vote for that. I am going to vote for divided  government.

The reader will note the use of moderating qualifiers like “less”, “more”, “greater”, “better” in the description of these objectives. The dividist voting heuristic is necessarily an incrementalist prescription for what ails us. Think "evolutionary" not "revolutionary". It is not a way to turn the political system on it's head and institute a brave new world of libertarianish freedom. It is not the realization of a new centrist majority party as a political force.  It is a way to incrementally move our massive ship of state in a more consistently moderated centrist direction on economic, social, and civil libertarian issues.

Historians, legal scholars, and economists have documented - as historical fact - that policy movement toward these objectives are realized when you divide government versus single party control of the legislature and the executive. These are the policy objectives dividists prefer. This is what dividists vote for and what dividists get when we cast our votes for divided federal government. 

We got it when we had a Democrat President (Clinton) with a Republican Congress. We got it when we had a Republican President (Bush) with a Democratic House of Representatives. We are getting it now with a Democratic President (Obama) and a Republican  House of Representatives. It just works better that way. 

Partisans, in general, have a different take. They generally believe - or find it politically expedient to promote - the notion that other party is the spawn of Satan and their party is on the side of angels.  That Republicans are evil and Democrats are good or Democrats are evil and Republicans are good. That's fine. That is how partisans think. 

Dividists don't think that way. Dividists think the the major parties are fundamentally the same. They simply employ different rent-seeking lobbyists with different priorities seeking governmental largesse for different constituencies. Dividists think the only way to keep their worst impulses in check, is to not give either party all the keys to the kingdom. Ever.  Dividists think our constitutional form of government was designed to have branches in opposition. Always electing different parties to control of the executive and legislative branches is an effective way to keep our government working the way it was designed. 

Let others vote for political parties or based on what politicians say to get their vote. It is very unlikely that they will get what they vote for, even if their team wins - perhaps -   especially if their team win. When dividists win, they usually get exactly what they voted for, and they don't have to trust what politicians say to get it. 

Dividists know that empirical historical evidence shows single party control results in less fiscal responsibility, unpopular and badly crafted legislation,  inadequate oversight and poor governance.  If we have the opportunity to vote against federal government fiscal irresponsibly, why wouldn’t we?   

The question posed by this blog is whether a relatively small group of enlightened voters, by voting in concert, sometimes Republican and sometimes Democrat, can achieve these objectives by always voting specifically to maintain a divided government in Washington. It would not take many voters to pull this off. perhaps as few as 5% of the electorate.  If those voters could be organized around these principles, a relatively small number of centrist, independent, libertarianish voters could have an outsized influence driving these objectives by voting consistently for divided government.

Think of it this way...

Imagine there is a candidate and party running for federal elected office, and you were informed by a time traveler from the future that voting for this candidate would absolutely move the federal government toward the objectives you seek. Would you vote for that candidate?

That candidate exists.

The name of that candidate is Divided Government.

NOTE: This is an updated version of a 2007 post. It is also a draft preview chapter from The Dividist Manifesto©,  which will be published as soon as I finish writing it. Hopefully this year. 

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