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Divided government reflects divided country

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin says a divided government is causing the dysfunction and stalemate in Washington.
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin says a divided government is causing the dysfunction and stalemate in Washington. The Associated Press

Last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan said he was tired of divided government, which he said “doesn’t work very well.”

Ryan’s party controls both houses in Congress. The speaker was talking about the whole government — if one party controls the executive branch, and a different party controls at least one house of the legislature, the government is said to be “divided.”

It’s that division, Ryan said, that’s causing the dysfunction and stalemate in Washington. Is he right?

Divided government isn’t possible in most parliamentary systems, where the legislative majority picks the executive, but the United States doesn’t use a parliamentary system. On 18 occasions since 1961, the two major parties have split control of the federal government. Ten other times, one party has controlled both the White House and the Congress.

Which system worked better? The verdict seems mixed.

Democrats had complete control of government in the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, and the government got lots of things done. That includes the Affordable Care Act, which made voters so angry they threw the Democrats out of power in 2010.

Jimmy Carter and the Democrats ran the whole government in the late 1970s, to disastrous results. George W. Bush had GOP majorities in Congress and still couldn’t privatize Social Security (although he did add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare).

The record with divided government is equally muddled. In the 1980s, with Democrats in charge of Congress and Ronald Reagan in the White House, Washington cut taxes, saved Social Security, and granted amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants.

A decade later, with Republicans in charge of Congress and Democratic President Bill Clinton in office, the federal budget was balanced.

That sounds good until you consider divided government in the Obama era, when Congress has set records for inactivity and futility.

We also have an interesting real-time contrast closer to home. In Missouri, Gov. Jay Nixon has faced hostile GOP majorities in the legislature, while in Kansas, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has worked with mostly compliant senators and representatives.

The verdict? Nixon’s divided government has left several major challenges unaddressed — roads, rural health care, education, economic growth. But Brownback’s unified government passed tax cuts that have busted the budget.

Do nothing, or do something poorly. How can we explain the confusing results?

It would be easy to conclude the quality of government is determined by the quality of the people in it, not by which party controls it. That seems obvious — too obvious.

Perhaps we’re closer to the truth when we realize the periods of great accomplishment in American government come when voters share broad agreement on goals and government, regardless of party. When Americans generally agree on issues, party control of government is almost irrelevant.

That seemed true in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, Americans deeply disagree about everything. It shouldn’t be surprising that our government, at almost every level, reflects that disagreement, no matter who’s in power.

Speaker Ryan says divided government doesn’t work. He may be onto something more profound and troubling: America is divided, not just its government, and is just as dysfunctional.

It’s hard to see how the elections in November will change that sad calculation.

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