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Divided Government


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There is nothing politicians hate more, and few things the public benefits from more, than divided government.

Politicians, pundits, and the press all decry divided government. It muddies the waters, makes it difficult to accomplish political goals, and frustrates party activists and interest groups all interested in seeing their agendas put into action. Pundits and the press decry divided government for a less simple but similarly powerful reason: it makes good copy to do so. Partisan bickering is easy to bemoan, and criticism of it resonates well with the public.

The public doesn't so much hate divided government—they vote for it often enough that the evidence suggests that they are generally OK with it—as they hate having to be subjected to all that partisan bickering. Average voters resent having to worry about the shenanigans of politicians and the government, and they sure don't like having to listen to politicians bemoan their lot of having to work with the other party.

Minnesotans have generally shown themselves quite happy with divided government. If you look back over the last couple of decades it has been the norm, rather than the exception. Since Perpich was Governor back in 1992, Minnesotans have not once elected a Governor, House, and Senate all of the same Party. They came within 9000 votes of doing so in 2010, and without Tom Horner in the electoral mix probably would have done so, but so far it has yet to happen in 20 years.

Divided government tends to work pretty well for a simple reason: in normal times, while it is important for government to function reasonably well, the private sector does all the heavy lifting. The fewer new things government does, in general, the better. Politicians may make grand promises and have big plans, but rarely does much get done beyond keeping government running.

When times are good, this works well. When times are bad, this usually works even better.

When the public is disgruntled politicians scramble to prove their worth, proposing grand initiatives to get things moving again. Most of the time, though, those grand initiatives will accomplish little, and in many cases they could even do real harm. As the private sector struggles to regain its footing, changing the rules of the game through big government programs just creates uncertainty and makes it even harder to adjust to new circumstances.

The one big exception to this rule, though, is when government itself is in deep trouble. This has been true lately in many states, where overspending during flush times has left large hangovers of government debt, bloated bureaucracies, and unsustainable pension and health care obligations. When government has to fundamentally change the way it does business, divided government has the potential to be toxic.

The normal party bickering which prevents major changes still exists, but in extraordinary circumstances the paralysis this can cause works against the public good, rather than for it.

Minnesota's flirting with that situation now, although the crisis is not truly upon us. As painful as the budget deficits have been to deal with, they haven't truly threatened the fiscal solvency of the state. Budget cuts and government shutdowns have been painful for effected individuals and frustrating for politicians, but they have been little more than an annoying sideshow for most Minnesotans.

That could change soon, however. The real fiscal crisis our government faces looms large, and in the near future. Health care costs are still skyrocketing, and state employee pensions are underfunded. Slow economic growth and dangerous demographic shifts threaten the basic solvency of the state government, and our current divided government is simply not equipped to take on a problem of this scope.

Voters choosing to unite the government under a single party would hardly be sufficient to solve these problems—no matter who is in charge in St Paul tackling these problem will be unpleasant and politically deadly—but it may be a necessary prerequisite.

In all likelihood that will mean little can get done for at least two more years. Few people believe that the Democrats will retake both the House and the Senate this election, and even fewer believe that either political party could overcome the entrenched interest groups satisfied with the current state of affairs until an actual crisis is at hand.

True government reform—not just nibbling around the edges but fundamental change—comes once in a generation, and only in response to a clear and present crisis. We are not there yet, but if you look ahead, it is coming up fast.

David Strom is a fellow at the Minnesota Free Market Institute at Center of the American Experiment.

This was published in Politics in Minnesota (PIM) April 20, 2012.