It’s divided government, something pundits often describe as a healthy guarantor of moderate policy outcomes and something voters say they like as a check on either party growing too powerful. But right now, wouldn’t it be better if one party were in charge and could just solve the problem — or at least do its best?
“Only if it’s my party,” you might say. Fair enough. But right now, we’re seeing how the need to compromise can slow things to a crawl when rapid, decisive action is what’s necessary.
Let’s be clear: The main holdup is that the White House and congressional Republicans can’t agree on what they’re seeking. They know they don’t want to be as generous as Democrats do, but beyond that, they seem all over the map. For their part, House Democrats passed their rescue bill back in May.
While there are a number of disagreements — how much help to give states, whether to give the Postal Service an infusion of cash — the biggest sticking point is the now-expired enhanced unemployment benefits, which were giving the 30 million or so Americans receiving benefits an extra $600 a week on top of payments from states.
Democrats want to revive and continue those enhanced benefits as long as the crisis lasts; Republicans are consumed with the idea that millions of lazy Americans might be sitting at home when they could be out working. So they’re playing around with various complex formulas (what if we replace 70 percent of people’s former incomes or give them $200 a week?) but can’t come up with a single position.
The truth is that multiple studies have now found that people are not refusing to work because their unemployment benefits are too generous. Not only that, but the added $600 benefit has boosted consumer spending, helped people pay for housing and otherwise kept the economy from getting even worse.
But because we have divided government, the negotiations drag on while Republicans try to decide how much they want to claw back from people who have lost their jobs, with each passing day sending more people into financial distress.
Of course, in a world where Republicans were not utterly bonkers, they’d want to put as much money as possible into the economy, if only to help salvage President Trump’s reelection bid. But for whatever reason — perhaps some combination of anti-government ideology and pessimism that anything can save Trump — they’re determined not to offer too much help.
To be clear, even if you had one-party rule, there would still be plenty of hurdles. As Michael Grunwald reminds us, in 2009, when Democrats held the White House and Congress, they worried about fallout from making the Recovery Act too large — so they limited its size, something that nearly everyone involved now realizes was a mistake. In the future, we’re likely to say the same thing about the current recovery measures.
But when one party is in charge, at least it can avoid many of these kinds of stalemates, especially when we’re in a crisis and inaction is itself politically and economically dangerous.
In parliamentary systems, one-party rule is the norm, which means members of the ruling party can seldom fool themselves into thinking they can shift blame when things go wrong. Right now, Republicans are frantically trying to convince people that the lack of a new stimulus is Democrats’ fault.
As for the worry that one-party rule will result in a legislative bacchanal that goes beyond what the public supports, it’s true that more legislation was passed when one party controlled the House, the Senate and the White House after the 2016 and 2008 elections. But that should be the whole idea: A party wins, it enacts its agenda, and then the public decides if it likes the results.
In fact, in some cases the threat of divided government encourages parties to be more, not less, aggressive when they have complete control. For instance, if Joe Biden becomes president and Democrats win the Senate, they’ll know there’s a good chance that 2022 will feature low turnout and anger at the ruling party. That opens the door to the opposition gaining control of one or both chambers, as happened in 2018, 2014, 2010 and 2006.
If that outcome is almost inevitable, the logical strategy is not to be moderate in your approach — which probably won’t help you anyway — but to go whole-hog and pass everything on your wish list, since you’ll have only two years to do it.
All this isn’t to say that the current mess is no one’s and everyone’s fault. Some individuals are being more reasonable than others. But the next time we get back to one-party rule, at least we’ll know that the buck can’t be easily passed. And something might get done.