Los Angeles Times business reporter Joe Puzzanghera has floated the theory that Republican control of Congress portends slow growth for the U.S. economy because of the threat of budget fights and gridlock. “The economy boomed through most of last year, a time when the nation’s capital was devoid of major budget fights and threats of government shutdown,” he wrote on Dec. 31. The implication is that our economy works best when government faces less opposition. But history shows the opposite.
In fact, gridlock in Washington has been associated with fast economic growth. That was the case in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan faced off against a Democratic-controlled Congress. It happened again in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton not only fought bitterly with Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress, but was even impeached. And it was the case in the period 2011-2014, despite a dysfunctional Senate, an internally divided House, and an administration whose policies failed one after the other.
There are counter-examples, when fast growth and one-party rule coincided. The point is not that gridlock works better. Rather, the point is that opposition can play a profoundly positive role when one part of government wishes to do something dangerous. David Harsanyi, writing recently at the Federalist, makes that point by quoting Pietro Nivola of the liberal Brookings Institution: “People often don’t realize that a political system is sometimes effective when it does not do certain things,” Nivola explained.
In the ongoing recovery, the thing that government had to be prevented from doing was spending the economy into a spiral of deficit and debt. The Tea Party victory of 2010 may not have achieved much of what conservatives had hoped, but it did put the brakes on spending, and ended President Barack Obama’s most ambitious plans for “fundamental transformation” of the U.S. That added a measure of much-needed stability against an administration determined to foment, and exploit, political crisis.
California, a virtual one-party state, may have too much stability. Gov. Jerry Brown deserves credit for bringing some stability to the state’s finances–though the Wall Street boom, the startup explosion, and creative accounting may have had more to do with that than Proposition 30’s tax hikes. The question is whether California can tackle the most difficult challenges–long-term debt, pension shortfalls, water shortages, high poverty, cultural upheaval–when entrenched Democratic Party leaders refuse to do so.
Just look at the corruption crisis that gripped the State Senate last year.The Senate’s Democratic leadership refused to demand resignations or significant changes, sending Senators for ethics training instead. The absence of opposition means a lackluster political debate–one that may overlook hidden problems and fail to foresee future challenges. When the next crisis hits–some financial shock, say, or another drought–we may well wish California had suffered more gridlock and enjoyed less consensus.
Senior Editor-at-Large Joel B. Pollak edits Breitbart California and is the author of the new ebook, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party, available for Amazon Kindle.
Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelpollak