As the country’s political pendulum has swung back to the Democrats, there is a reason to lament that Republicans did not retain control of the Senate: Split-government leads to better and more durable public policy.
When the houses of Congress are not controlled by the same party, legislative proposals must be drawn with an eye toward compromise. The expectation is that the legislative process will be a difficult give-and-take, rather than one party running roughshod over the other. Proposals are vetted and scrutinized, gains and concessions are made, and refined law emerges that represents the most important aspects to each political party, leaving the political favors and special interest subterfuge on the cutting room floor. The relatively recent history of the federal tax law illustrates.
The Tax Reform Act of 1986 represented the culmination of 11 months of bipartisan effort toward tax reform. Democrats controlled the House, Republicans the Senate. Both parties agreed that tax reform was warranted but, unsurprisingly, substantially disagreed on what it should look like. The House Ways and Means Committee held 33 days of public hearings involving over 450 witnesses and the House eventually passed its tax reform measure. The Senate passed its own reform bill, which set rate reductions and revenue-neutrality (e.g. offsetting lower rates by eliminating a deduction) as cornerstones. The lot then fell to a bipartisan group of 11 Senators and 11 House Representatives to do the dirty work of reconciling the divergent bills in conference committee. Each party sacrificed elements of their bills for the mutually agreed upon greater good, and eventually a bipartisan bill emerged that passed both houses of Congress.
On its signing, the New York Times, hailed the Tax Reform Act as “A Tax Bill for the Textbooks,” and suggested that “[f]or years to come, students of politics will look to the odyssey of the new tax law as a prime example of how the American system of government gets things done.” When he signed the bill, President Reagan called it “the best antipoverty bill, the best pro-family measure and the best job-creation program ever to come out of the Congress of the United States.”
Though the law was not perfect, it was a significant improvement on the preceding tax system and lasted for 31 years, until 2017, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. Republicans set upon unilateral substantial overhaul of the tax laws. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 emerged as the antithesis to Congress’s good work in 1986.
Gone was the opportunity for deliberate consideration. Only six weeks elapsed between the time the reform bill was introduced in the House and when the President signed it. During this period, not a single hearing was held in either the House Ways and Means Committee or the Senate Finance Committee. Absent was any cooperative spirit as opposing party votes were not needed and, indeed, the legislation passed along strict party lines without a single Democrat’s vote in the House or Senate, with even one Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, voting against it.
The resulting law embodies partisan lawmaking, enabled when one party controls both houses of Congress and the White House. To be sure, it is not the only example, nor is it a Republican phenomenon. The Affordable Care Act was similarly rammed through Congress on partisan terms, and when political winds blew back toward Republicans, they did their utmost to unwind and defang it. With a Democrat in the White House, a similar demise almost certainly awaits the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act with Democrats also controlling both houses of Congress. Imbalance and uncertainty created in this type of retributive political climate are not in the country’s best interest.
Split-government compels elected government officials to work together, prioritize objectives, and decide what is most important when they can’t have everything they want. Congress in 1986 epitomized this spirit and demonstrated what bipartisan cooperation (even if compelled by political circumstance) can accomplish. The Georgia runoff results and the score-evening flurry of one-sided legislation that will follow leave the country’s public policy, and by extension the people, worse off.