Gridlock is better; at least that’s what history shows for the budget. In contrast to all the handwringing that a divided government is bad for getting things done, it has a far better record for balancing the federal budget than does one-party control in Washington. This, in turn, points to an inescapable fact: Washington’s budget problem is spending, and spending does not happen on its own.
Over the last 81 years, there have been just 13 federal budget surpluses. Of those 13, only three have come with single-party control of the White House and Congress. And one of those three, 1951, came with the Senate tied 48-48, a Democratic majority only by virtue of the vice president’s tie-breaking vote - a split that would surely be labeled “gridlock” today.
So the effective scorecard on balanced budgets over the last eight decades is gridlock, 11; consensus, 2. Each party has had one of those two - Republicans in 1930 and Democrats in 1949. Since 1949, gridlock has racked up nine balanced budgets to consensus’s zero.
The party control of the presidency, Senate, and House is equally evenly split. Democrats have a 7-6 advantage in control of the White House and Senate during these 13 balanced budgets, while Republicans hold a 7-6 advantage in control of the House.
Far from being an anomaly, the “gridlock is good” thesis makes perfect sense. The driver of Washington’s budget problem has been, is and will increasingly be spending.
Creating new spending requires enactment of new legislation - either creating a new program or increasing existing ones. Certainly, federal entitlement spending is akin to autopilot budgeting - which, once enacted, continues its pre-legislated course indefinitely. But even with entitlements, the big spending jumps have come from increasing a program’s benefits, its beneficiaries or both.
Medicare is a case in point. As rapidly increasing as this program is, it would be but a shell of itself had it stayed within its original parameters. Its enormous growth has been fueled by a continual increase in new benefits, higher reimbursements and lower cost-sharing by beneficiaries
Partisan splits and narrow majorities make achieving consensus - and therefore, enacting new spending - much harder. Compare what has happened during the gridlock since last October.
During this time, the federal government has been operating under temporary budgets called “continuing resolutions.” Looking just at the spending Congress annually controls - termed “other activities” by the Congressional Budget Office - we get a good picture of the difference between a gridlock budget and last year’s consensus budget.
CBO states regarding this year’s gridlock budgeting, “[a]djusting for prepayments and timing shifts, spending for [other activities] was down by $5 billion (or 2.2 percent).” In comparison, during the first three months of last year’s consensus budget, other activities’ spending “(excluding spending by the FDIC) increased by $26 billion (or 12 percent) through December.” That’s roughly a 14 percent swing to gridlock’s advantage.
It is consensus that is actually more favorable to new spending, not gridlock. If spending is held constant, revenues from a growing economy - and an economy is more likely to grow if government spending is controlled - will inevitably catch up.
While the budgetary discrepancy between gridlock and consensus may seem counterintuitive, it shouldn’t. But it should serve to point us to another fact too often ignored in the current deficit and debt debate. Washington’s - and an increasing number of state and local governments’ - problems are not acts of God. They are acts of government.
Our deficit and debt problems are the result of conscious and continuous actions - and yes, consensus ones.
The media currently bemoaning gridlock as an obstacle to solving our current deficit predicament at the same time refuse to acknowledge what got us here in the first place. Spending is the cause of the budget problem, and it was consensus that was the cause of the spending.
America’s political history is of a government operating under checks and balances. Regretfully, its budget history is one of operating out of balance, owing to the writing of checks. Balance in the government is the better alternative to achieving balance in our budget. And it is because that it is the better check on writing checks.
J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration.