Divided government

August 04, 2002

AS THE SENATE was bolting out of Washington last week for its month-long summer recess, Republican leaders paused to issue a report card on Majority Leader Tom Daschle's performance running the chamber.

Predictably, he drew a couple of F's and lots of incompletes for failing to deliver President Bush's agenda on issues such as energy and prescription drugs.

That's his job, Mr. Daschle said later of the checks-and-balances role the Democratic Senate plays in an otherwise Republican-run government. And he's right. Not even a Senate of the president's party should be rubber-stamping his every request.

What's more, Americans seem to prefer a divided government that can't swerve too far to the left or the right.

Balance may not be their specific intent when they enter the voting booth. But Americans haven't given control of the White House and both houses of Congress to one party since the Democrats ruled Washington during the first two years of the Clinton administration nearly a decade ago.

And the margins of control are now so slender in the GOP-led House and Democratic Senate that they are almost in perfect equilibrium, as was reflected by the 2000 presidential race that was too close to call even after it was over.

One strength of divided government is the policies that are adopted have generally been shaped through months and years of debate and pass with broad bipartisan backing.

Only hours after last week's report card event, GOP leaders were back in the same Capitol reception room to share with reporters a phone call from Mr. Bush congratulating the Senate for approving a top item on his wish list: expanded trade negotiating authority. Senate Republican leader Trent Lott at least had the good grace to acknowledge that the trade bill would never have passed without help from Mr. Daschle, who overcame resistance from many in his own party.

Also missing from Mr. Daschle's GOP report card was the new law on corporate accountability, painstakingly crafted by Senate Democrats and then hurriedly embraced by congressional Republicans and the White House as the financial markets tanked. All will be campaigning on the issue during the weeks ahead.

The downside of divided government is that sometimes ideological gulfs cannot be bridged without intervention by party leaders who would rather use the stalemate as an excuse to seek a broader mandate from voters. Philosophy and politics combined to stymie action on subsidizing prescription drug insurance for the elderly.

Or legislation can be so compromised there's nothing much left. Exhibit A is the energy bill, which can't win enough votes to pass if it includes Mr. Bush's chief goal of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling or the higher fuel-efficiency standards sought by many Democrats. Only tax cuts for energy producers remain.

Mr. Lott contends the Senate would be more efficient if the majority leader's job were returned to him. But unless he also got a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority -- a most unlikely turn of events -- fractiousness would continue.

And noisy dispute is probably more healthy than not.

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