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Archive for Monday, October 30, 2006

Divided government often gets job done

October 30, 2006

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— With all the parsing that was needed to make sense of President Bush's convoluted explanations of his Iraq policies during last week's lengthy news conference, it is not surprising that another question - on another topic - received little notice.

It was, in the president's judgment, "a tricky little question" that Stephen Dinan of The Washington Times asked - one that seemingly caught him by surprise.

"With a Republican Congress," Dinan said, "you failed to achieve three major goals of your second term: Social Security reform, a tax code overhaul, and a comprehensive immigration bill. Why shouldn't Americans give Democrats a chance to work with you on those issues, especially when divided government seemed to work in the late 1990s on the budget?"

When the president recovered from his surprise at the question from the conservative newspaper's correspondent, he went into his familiar assertive, told-you-so mode. "First," he said, "I haven't given up on any of those issues. I've got two years left to achieve them. And I firmly believe it is more likely to achieve those three objectives with a Republican-controlled Congress and a Republican-controlled Senate. And I believe I'll be working with a Republican-controlled Congress and a Republican-controlled Senate."

Bush went on for four paragraphs spelling out his belief that Republicans would defy the pollsters and pundits and win the Nov. 7 election, segued into a rap about the joys of electioneering and wound up by telling the questioner, "Anyway, thanks for asking about the campaign."

At no point did he venture within six feet of the original question - and it's not hard to see why. He's not yet ready to think of Democrats except as opponents.

But the premise of Dinan's question is historically correct. It was the combination of a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and the Republican Congress elected in 1994 that finally got a grip on budget deficits and produced the only balanced budgets of modern times.

It was not a smooth or easy process; indeed, in 1995, the first year after the Republican takeover of the House and Senate, the budget negotiations collapsed and government shut down for a few days amid bitter partisan recriminations.

But both sides were chastened by the experience. When Clinton was re-elected with a Republican Congress in 1996, he and Speaker Newt Gingrich cut the deal the next year that moved the budget out of the red for the first time in 29 years.

They discussed a similar fix for Social Security, using some of the new surplus to ease transition costs to a reformed system. But then Monica happened and all bets were off.

What are the chances that divided government could also be productive in the final two years of the Bush presidency? Better than might be imagined - especially given the president's agenda.

Comprehensive immigration reform? The immigration bill embodying most of what the president wanted was co-sponsored by Republican John McCain and Democrat Ted Kennedy. On the vote for passage, Democrats were 38 to 4 in favor; Republicans, 32-23 against. Clearly, the president's best allies on immigration are on the Democratic side.

Tax reform? Well, the last major, successful reform of the code took place in 1986, when Republicans controlled the White House and the Senate and Democrats held the House. Instrumental in its passage was Democrat Bill Bradley, then the senator from New Jersey. Last week, Bradley was back in Washington to support another Democratic senator, Ron Wyden of Oregon, who offered an open invitation to Bush to join in moving forward a long overdue cleanup of the tax code.

Social Security reform, the third of the president's objectives, will be politically difficult no matter which party controls Congress. For most Democrats, the president's proposal to carve out room for individually owned accounts is a nonstarter. But if Bush is willing to do what his ally, Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah long ago suggested and postpone private accounts until steps are taken to solve the long-term fiscal problems of the system, he might find the Democrats ready to listen to his other ideas for reform.

None of this would be easy, and all of it would require a new willingness on Bush's part to open himself to genuine negotiations with the next Congress. But the rewards for the country could be very large.

- David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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