Whenever I hear somebody decry the political ‘gridlock’ in Washington, I am reminded of just how poor a job our public schools do of teaching basic American history. Gridlock is exactly what the founders intended from our government. They crafted a beautiful system that is meant to be ever-embroiled in political struggle, never swinging too far or too hard in any direction, never able to implement any broad, far-reaching, anti-liberty policies for any length of time. Its hands were intentionally tied, its officials forced to navigate the treacherous waters between the federal government and the states; between the co-equal executive, legislative, and judicial branches; and between the two houses within the legislative branch itself.
Yes, our system of government was designed to spend most of its time fighting with itself and accomplishing little. The red tape and roadblocks aren’t a flaw in our government’s design, but are among its most redeeming and timeless features. The founders knew that a small, limited government with broadly distributed power, always busy fighting with itself, would be much less likely to spend its time fighting with us and encroaching on our individual liberties.
This attitude is pervasive throughout the writings of the founders. Thomas Jefferson said, “The course of history shows that as the government grows, liberty decreases,” and that “It is not by the consolidation or concentration, of powers, but by their distribution that good government is effected.” In this same vein, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay—authors of The Federalist, a seminal work of early American political thought explaining the yet-unratified Constitution—went to great lengths to describe the various forms of administrative gridlock they and the other founders had intentionally foisted on the young American republic.
The American electorate has an intuitive understanding of this. Throughout our history, the voters have shown a natural preference for a split government. We seem to abhor one-party control. With rare exception, the political party that holds the Presidency loses seats in Congress during the length of their term(s). Likewise, a party that holds a reliable Congressional majority is less likely to have its candidate elected to the Presidency. Rarely do the American voters leave the entirety of our government in one party’s hands for long.
This is because most of us instinctively find an active, effective, un-restrained government to be distasteful. We like our government limited to making tweaks around the edges. We like them to stick to things that have broad, bipartisan support and leave everything else alone. We like them to busy themselves with bickering and infighting and stay the heck out of our way and out of our lives. We want our politicos to resign themselves to small, incremental initiatives that don’t effect us very much, and only go big when pretty-much everybody agrees on it. This is how the system is supposed to work: i.e., not very well at all.
Sometimes this propensity for gridlock causes a ‘crisis,’ like the debt ceiling debate going on in Washington now. But the talking heads complaining about a ‘do-nothing’ House standing in the way of compromise are missing the point. The opposition in the House of Representatives was elected specifically to throw a wrench in the [relatively] smooth-running works of the previous one-party juggernaut. The American public voted a new, deficit-hawk breed of Republicans into a House majority (and reduced the Democratic Senate majority) because that new breed promised to bring gridlock back to Washington—to slam the brakes on decades of deficit spending and government overreach for which the centrist compromisers in both parties share the blame. This new breed didn’t come to compromise. No, they came to restore our government’s intended natural state: gridlocked and ineffective.
And consider how successful they have been. Without the gridlock, Congress simply would have ‘gotten something done’ and passed a debt ceiling increase into law, preferring to kick the debt crisis a little further down the road instead of forcing themselves to start addressing it now. Without the gridlock, President Barack Obama’s (D) downright-insulting 2012 budget plan would have become law largely un-debated, leaving the balanced budgets he promised during his campaign as an unattainable mirage somewhere more than twenty years in the future. Without the gridlock, we would be talking about new record-breaking deficits instead of the first, tentative (though still insufficient) steps toward getting spending under control. Without the gridlock, destructive tax increases would have been passed into law and further depressed any chance of an economic recovery. The list goes on and on.
So to all of you yelling and screaming at Congress to quit arguing and do something about the debt limit, be careful what you wish for. It is the gridlock—the disjointed, inefficient, difficult way things get done in Washington when control is split between the parties—that has already ensured that any increase in the debt ceiling comes tied to concrete steps toward getting our fiscal house in order. It is the new class of deficit-hawk Republicans, jamming the wrenches in the works every chance they get and fighting for every last cent in cuts before signing on to a compromise, who might actually save the republic from its own bankruptcy in the end . . . if they (and we) are lucky.
In other words, there is no doubt that the founders had it right. Gridlock is good.