- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Americans beyond the Washington Beltway marvel at the depths of D.C. acrimony. Washington seems able to fight infinitely over the infinitesimal — the two parties apparently able to argue over the sky’s color or assign blame for rain.

Yet there is a perverse rationality to this irascibility. Congress is in the midst of a prolonged period of unprecedented political balance. Simultaneously, the stakes of the political game are increasingly high. Many critical issues are reaching serious decision points — from fiscal to foreign to social policy — just as the overall areas of decision have increased with government’s expanding scope.

America’s historical political pattern has been for one party’s excessive and prolonged dominance — such as that ushered in by Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans in 1860 that extended to the Great Depression or that begun by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats in 1932 that ran to 1980.

While there were certainly short aberrations within these periods — Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson during the Republican run and Eisenhower and Nixon during the Democrats’ — the predominant party and its policies prevailed.

Against this backdrop, Congress’ current political balance is truly exceptional. Congress is in its longest political balance in the contemporary period. Since Congress reached its current size of 100 Senate seats (in 1959) and 435 House seats (in 1913), it has not been so balanced for so long. Since 1995, the Senate majority has averaged just 53 seats and the House majority just 227 seats. On average, fewer than 6 percent of total Senate seats and fewer than 5 percent of total House seats separated the two parties. A shift of just four Senate seats or 10 House seats were all that was needed to switch majorities.

In part, the parties fight because they can… and feel they must. In this 12-year period, the minority has never been so far removed from power to concede predominance to the other party and the majority has never been secure enough to exert predominance.

It is not only the balance in political means that has encouraged partisanship, but the ends contested. Government’s scope has greatly expanded over prior periods. In the past, the federal government was smaller in size and scope, the U.S. global role less, states’ purviews greater, and social issues fewer. The increased number of issues only adds fodder for the fight.

We now face questions about how, not if, the U.S. will engage the world. Social issues unarticulated even a couple of decades ago are now Page One news. Nowhere are these questions clearer or more important than in fiscal policy. Government spends one-fifth of the nation’s economy (20.1 percent in 2005). Assuming continued levels of health care spending coupled with the Baby Boomer’s aging, federal spending (primarily fueled by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) will grow 25 percent in the next 15 years (to 24.8 percent in 2020) and double over the next 45 years (to 39.9 percent in 2050).

If federal entitlement programs are not reformed, this spending explosion will have to be financed through borrowing or taxes (yet the post-World War II average tax burden as a percent of the economy is just 17.7 percent). Whichever course is taken, it will represent a qualitative, not just a quantitative, public policy change.

This multiplicity of issues is not only the prize of political ascendancy but a cause of the political balance. The electorate’s subdivision into ever smaller slices makes forming a majority all the harder and forming a dissatisfied minority all the easier. The more issues there are, the harder the parties fight to decide them. Yet the more issues there are, the harder it is for parties to assemble determining majorities. The resulting balance makes politics even more contentious.

Washington’s current political balance resembles a tie baseball game in the late innings, when a single run could determine victory. Both teams go to utmost lengths to obtain or prevent a single run — managers go to their benches, their bullpens and baseball’s basic strategies — as each pitch is contested. With Washington’s policy landscape of critical issues, this is not just any game, but one where a season hangs in the balance.

November’s one certainty is continued contention because the current political balance will remain. In fact, there is a strong likelihood Congress will be even more balanced after Election Day. If Republicans retain control of both House and Senate, it could well be with slimmer majorities. If Democrats take control of either body, it will most likely be by very small margins — slimmer than Republicans currently enjoy. This would mean even greater conflict between the parties as they prepare for an even larger game in 2008. Just as great World Series have been decided by a single run in a single game, great policy issues could be decided by a single seat. And both parties are only too aware.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget 2001-2004 and as a congressional staff member 1987-2000.

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