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Opinion: Divided We Govern, Both in Trenton and Washington, D.C.

Despite deep partisan differences, lawmakers can still get things done

Dick Zimmer
Credit: Amanda Brown
Dick Zimmer

The smart money is betting that the gridlock that plagued the legislative process in Washington, D.C., during the past four years will become even worse now that Republicans have won decisive majorities in both houses of Congress.

Surely, nobody will be shocked if lawmaking in Washington remains paralyzed for the next two years.

The Founding Fathers designed the legislative and executive branches to contend against each other, not to spew out legislation. The Democratic and Republican parties are more ideologically polarized than ever before. Their respective bases often see compromise as betrayal.

And if President Obama delivers on his promise of a sweeping executive order on immigration before giving the next Congress the opportunity to pass its own immigration bill, he will create an angry reaction from congressional Republicans that won’t be quelled by sharing bourbon with incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or a round of golf with House Speaker John Boehner.

Having served in divided governments in Trenton and Washington, D.C., I can testify that they are hard on legislators of both parties. Members of the legislative majority hate it when their leaders water down their cherished principles to reach a compromise with the chief executive. And members of the legislative minority feel disregarded and disrespected when they are left out of the room where the deals are made.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t produce significant legislation.

Both Trenton and Washington have had a lot of experience with divided government.

Since World War II, most presidents have had to endure the opposing party controlling both houses of Congress for at least two years. During the same period most New Jersey governors served at least part of their tenure with at least one house in the hands of the other party.

But, as Gov. Chris Christie loves to point out, divided government can produce real results. At the same time the two parties are engaging in political theater (e.g., the repeated passage and vetoing of the so-called millionaires tax) they can get together to achieve real legislative progress (e.g., pension reform).

Congress will surely vote to repeal Obamacare and the President will surely veto the repeal, but that won’t diminish the prospects of future bipartisan agreements in the least.

Most legislators really want to pass legislation (preferably their own). They seek membership on committees that deal with issues they care about, and often devote themselves to the legislative nuts and bolts of their specialty while their leadership and the chief executive are capturing the headlines with rhetorical battles. This can result in serious legislative results, such as state Senate Education Committee Chair Teresa Ruiz’s tenure reform law or House Ways & Means Committee Chair Dave Camp’s important groundwork for comprehensive tax reform.

Even in the most toxic partisan environments, some legislative committee chairs can develop collegial and productive relationships with the ranking member of the opposing party and craft serious legislation together.

It helps if a leader of the legislative majority shares some of the same objectives as the chief executive (e.g. state Senate President Steve Sweeney on pension and education reform and the Republican congressional leaders on free trade, authorization of force against ISIS, corporate tax reform and charter schools).

It also helps if legislative leaders aren’t seeking higher office so they can afford to antagonize their party’s base and their more ambitious colleagues. This is definitely the case with McConnell and Boehner. But now that Sweeney is running for governor, it diminishes Christie’s options for bipartisan cooperation.

There are significantly more Republicans in both houses of Congress who represent swing constituencies that want both parties to work together. Even though they are conservative, that does not mean they will want to shut down the government to prove a point. Remember, the only shutdown of New Jersey’s government came when it was completely controlled by Democrats.

My optimism isn’t based entirely on random anecdotes and high hopes. It’s backed by serious academic research. In his highly praised book, “Divided We Govern,” Yale political science Professor David Mayhew exhaustively studied the federal legislative process over several decades and persuasively made the case that divided government has produced at least as much significant legislation as has single-party government.

So I’ll take the odds and make this bet for the 114th Congress: There will be lots of vetoes, lots of brinksmanship, and lots of harsh rhetoric; but when all is said and done, Congress and the president will have enacted, for good or ill, many important laws.

Dick Zimmer served in the NJ State Assembly and Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. He was twice the nominee of the NJ Republican Party for the U.S. Senate.

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