Argument: One-party rule makes military spending and war more likely

Issue Report: Divided government vs. one-party rule


William A. Niskanen. “Give divided government a chance”. Washington Monthly. October 2006 – Let’s look at some statistics. From the dawn of the Cold War until today, we’ve had only two periods of what could be called fiscal restraint: The last six years of the Eisenhower administration, and the last six years of the Clinton administration, both intervals in which the opposition controlled Congress. Under Clinton, the average annual increase in spending was at about 1 percent, while, under Ike, it was negative. By contrast, our unified governments have gone on fiscal benders. Harry Truman, with the help of a Democratic Congress, sent the money flying, with spending increases of as high as 10 percent a year. Lyndon Johnson was almost as profligate. And today, unfortunately, George W. Bush, with a GOP majority, is the heir to their legacies. To put this in plain numbers, government spending has increased an average of only 1.73 percent annually during periods of divided government. This number more than triples, to 5.26 percent, for periods of unified government. That’s a hefty premium to pay for a bit of unity.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%Equally striking is that these spending increases have generally found the same recipient: the Pentagon. It’s not that unified governments love to purchase bombers, but, rather, that they tend to draw us into war. This may sound improbable at first, but consider this: In 200 years of U.S. history, every one of our conflicts involving more than a week of ground combat has been initiated by a unified government. Each of the four major American wars during the 20th century, for example—World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—was initiated by a Democratic president with the support of a Democratic Congress. The current war in Iraq, initiated by a Republican president and backed by a Republican Congress, is consistent with this pattern. It also stands as the only use of military force involving more than a week of ground combat that has been initiated by a Republican president in over a century. Divided government appears to be an important constraint on American participation in war. Needless to say, this reduces outlays in both blood and treasure.