Is Gridlock a Good Outcome? By Dan Mitchell of the CENTER FOR FREEDOM AND PROSPERITY

Is Gridlock a Good Outcome?

Most Republicans and Democrats have a self-interested view of divided government.

They obviously prefer if their party controls everything. After all, that’s how Republicans got tax reform in 2017 and it’s how Democrats got Obamacare in 2010.

But they also like gridlock if that’s the only way of stopping the other party from wielding all the power.

Which is why Democrats liked gridlock after the 2018 election(they won the House of Representatives) and Republicans are going to like gridlock after the 2020 election (assuming they hold the Senate).

But what about those of us who want more economic liberty? Is gridlock good or bad?

As a matter of political economy, gridlock is good because it is harder for politicians to do anything when there’s divided government. Indeed, America’s Founders created a “separation of powers” system precisely because they wanted “checks and balances” to limit the power of politicians.

That’s the theory.

So how has it worked in practice?

First, we can look at international evidence by comparing the United States and Europe. We know two things.

  • European nations have a larger burden of government spending than the United States and generally have lower levels of economic liberty when compared to America.
  • European nations have parliamentary systems of government (the party that controls the legislature, by definition, controls the entire government), which means no checks and balances that can produce gridlock.

It’s certainly possible – or even quite likely – that those two points are interconnected. In other words, government has expanded faster in Europe precisely because there was no effective way of slowing or blocking statist legislation(and, as we know from the Second Theorem of Government, it’s difficult to take away goodies once voters get used to dependency).

Second, we can look at domestic evidence by comparing what’s happened in recent decades when there’s been gridlock in Washington.

Professor Steve Hanke crunched the numbers a couple of years ago. Here’s the chart he prepared showing that we got the the most spending restraint (shaded in green) when there was divided government.

Steve’s data is persuasive, but I think it’s even more instructive to focus on the next column, which shows changes in non-defense spending.

By this measure, the only good results (i.e., a falling burden of spending) occurred during the Reagan and Clinton years. Since I did a video on exactly this issue, I concur that we got good results during their presidencies.

But notice that we now see very bad numbers when there was divided government during the Eisenhower and Nixon years. And the numbers for the first President Bush moved further in the wrong direction.

The bottom line is that divided government can be good, but it may actually produce the worst-possible results when you combine weak-on-spending Republican presidents with profligate Democratic Congresses.

P.S. There’s strong evidence that gridock following the 2010 election produced better results for the nation.

P.P.S. Here’s my more advanced breakdown of what happened to government spending for every president since LBJ.

——

Barack Obama new book "A Promised Land"

Republican presidents besides Reagan have done a bad job of slowing the growth of spending.

President Obama wrote in his autobiography on page 415 in A PROMISED LAND:

There was a reason I told Valerie, why Republicans tended to do the opposite—why Ronald Reagan could preside over huge increases in the federal budget, and federal workforce and still be lionized by the GOP faithful as the guy who successfully shrank the federal government.

Take a look at Daniel Mitchell analysis of Presidents’ spending restraints!!!


Spending Restraint, Part I: Lessons from Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton

Uploaded by on Feb 14, 2011

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both reduced the relative burden of government, largely because they were able to restrain the growth of domestic spending. The mini-documentary from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity uses data from the Historical Tables of the Budget to show how Reagan and Clinton succeeded and compares their record to the fiscal profligacy of the Bush-Obama years.

___________________

Ronald Reagan was my hero and he did slow the growth of federal spending. In this post I did want to admit that Republicans have spent way too much in the past too, but we do have some spending cut heroes too. I have a lot of respect for Tea Party heroes like Tim Huelskamp and Justin Amash who are willing to propose deep spending cuts so we can eventually balance our budget.

Look at how things have been going the last four years and no matter how anyone tries to spin it, we are going down the financial drain fast. We got to balance the budget as soon as possible. Dan Mitchell of the Cato Institute showed in an article that I posted earlier about how much spending has exploded the last four years.

John Brummett wrote in the online addition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on May 30, 2012:

Obama did indeed run up the deficit with a stimulus measure to keep the economy from collapsing as he entered office…But in regard to budgets that he actually has proposed as president, beginning with the one for the fiscal year starting nearly a year after his election, Obama has raised spending at a slower rate than Clinton…

Republicans simply are more effective than Democrats at declaring a simple untruth loudly and repetitively through a pliable and powerful echo chamber of talk radio and cable news, thus embedding that untruth beneath the superficial consciousness of people otherwise disengaged.

__________

Now the truth of the matter is that Obama has spent around 25% of GDP when Clinton and most of the other presidents spent 20% or less. This fact allow disproves Brummett’s assertions listed above, but I will admit the Republicans have been guilty of spending too much also.

Dan Mitchell of the Cato Institute sets the record straight concerning the Republican’s spending which has been excessive too at times:

In a post last week, I explained that Obama has been a big spender, but noted his profligacy is disguised because TARP outlays caused a spike in spending during Bush’s last fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008). Meanwhile, repayments from banks in subsequent years count as “negative spending,” further hiding the underlying trend in outlays.

When you strip away those one-time factors, it turns out that Obama has allowed domestic spending to increase at the fastest rate since Richard Nixon.

I then did another post yesterday, where I looked at total spending (other than interest payments and bailout costs) and showed that Obama has presided over the biggest spending increases since Lyndon Johnson.

Looking at the charts, it’s also rather obvious that party labels don’t mean much. Bill Clinton presided during a period of spending restraint, while every Republican other than Reagan has a dismal track record.

President George W. Bush, for instance, scores below both Clinton and Jimmy Carter, regardless of whether defense outlays are included in the calculations. That’s not a fiscally conservative record, even if you’re grading on a generous curve.

This leads Jonah Goldberg to offer some sage advice to the GOP.

Here’s a simple suggestion for Mitt Romney: Admit that the Democrats have a point. Right before the Memorial Day weekend, Washington was consumed by a debate over how much Barack Obama has spent as president, and it looks like it’s picking up again. …all of these numbers are a sideshow: Republicans in Washington helped create the problem, and Romney should concede the point. Focused on fighting a war, Bush — never a tightwad to begin with — handed the keys to the Treasury to Tom DeLay and Denny Hastert, and they spent enough money to burn a wet mule. On Bush’s watch, education spending more than doubled, the government enacted the biggest expansion in entitlements since the Great Society (Medicare Part D), and we created a vast new government agency (the Department of Homeland Security). …Nearly every problem with spending and debt associated with the Bush years was made far worse under Obama. The man campaigned as an outsider who was going to change course before we went over a fiscal cliff. Instead, when he got behind the wheel, as it were, he hit the gas instead of the brakes — and yet has the temerity to claim that all of the forward momentum is Bush’s fault. …Romney is under no obligation to defend the Republican performance during the Bush years. Indeed, if he’s serious about fixing what’s wrong with Washington, he has an obligation not to defend it. This is an argument that the Tea Party — which famously dealt Obama’s party a shellacking in 2010 — and independents alike are entirely open to. Voters don’t want a president to rein in runaway Democratic spending; they want one to rein in runaway Washington spending.

Jonah’s point about “fixing what’s wrong with Washington” is not a throwaway line. Romney has pledged to voters that he won’t raise taxes. He also has promised to bring the burden of federal spending down to 20 percent of GDP by the end of a first term.

But even those modest commitments will be difficult to achieve if he isn’t willing to gain credibility with the American people by admitting that Republicans helped create the fiscal mess in Washington. Especially since today’s GOP leaders in the House and Senate were all in office last decade and voted for Bush’s wasteful spending.

It actually doesn’t even take much to move fiscal policy in the right direction. All that’s required is to restrain spending so that is grows more slowly than the private sector (with the kind of humility you only find in Washington, I call this “Mitchell’s Golden Rule“). The entitlement reforms in the Ryan budget would be a good start, along with some much-needed pruning of discretionary spending.

And if you address the underlying problem by limiting spending growth to about 2 percent annually, you can balance the budget in about 10 years. No need for higher taxes, notwithstanding the rhetoric of the fiscal frauds in Washington who salivate at the thought of another failed 1990s-style tax hike deal.

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