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A smattering of mattering

So. I’m still not really writing about politics, because the occasional venture into it over the last few months has not made me happy, but a thing occurred to me recently that I thought I’d bring up.

Unless I delete it without posting, like I did the last one. Whew.

OK, it’s this: We’ve got through half a year of unified Republican Party control of the federal government, and they’ve passed no legislation to speak of. And while that’s a relief to me personally, it’s also not terribly good for democratic self-governance when a Party is elected and fails to do anything. I consider it a significant problem that so many of my countrymen believe that political participation doesn’t matter—and I assume that there are plenty of conservatives who now believe that it doesn’t matter whether their Party is in the majority or not.

But really, I was thinking about the history of divided and unified government. And that’s what I’m going to write about below, in that 19th-Century positivist way that I often have, so feel free to move on to a less boring analysis of last night’s bizarre sequence of shenanigans.

So. There are, for the purposes of this analysis, three variables (House, Senate, Presidency) each of which could be R or D, which makes for eight possible states. However, I’m going to count a situation where one Party has a House majority but a Senate minority the same as that Party having a Senate majority and a House majority, so that brings it down to six. There is some difference when it comes to blocking legislation, Senate rules being different from House rules, but for passing legislation, what counts is a Party Leader from each Party willing to put it to a vote. So, six possible outcomes:

  1. D President, D both legislative houses
  2. D Pres, leg split
  3. D Pres, R both leg
  4. R Pres, R both leg
  5. R Pres, leg split
  6. R Pres, D both

This is the 115th Congress, and we have State Four, Republican Party majorities in the House and Senate and a Republican in the White House. In the 114th, it was State Three, Republican Party Majorities in the House and Senate and a Democrat in the White House. In the 113th and 112th, it was State Two. In the historic 111th, State One. The 110th, State Six; The 109th and 108th, State Four; 107th, mostly State Five, but with six months of State Four. The 106th and 105th and 104th, State Three. That’s twenty years (and a bit) of nearly-constant change. At one point, we had all six possible states over the course of seven sessions.

Just to contrast, from the mid-seventies through the eighties, there were only two different states (One and Six) over the course of thirteen Congresses. From 1901 to 1950, the government changed states only nine times. And of course for forty years, the House of Representatives had a Democratic Party Majority, which was historically odd itself. Times are different, one to another, I suppose. Still, it’s worth noting that one way in which this generation of legislators is different is that so many of them have experienced many different states of government, in the majority and the minority, with a same-party President and an other-party President. One might have thought that such experiences would lead our legislators to cling to cross-partisan norms of various kinds, but one might have been wrong.

At any rate, going back to the sense that participation matters, that when a Party wins an election we ought to expect our nation to have different laws and policies shortly afterward… I wonder what it was like in different eras. I grew into political awareness during the end of the Democratic House domination; I vaguely remember it being a Big Deal when the Republicans took the Senate in the 1980 election, and I definitely remember it being a Big Deal when the Democrats took it back in the 1986 midterms. And of course the 1994 wave election was an Enormous Deal, and it was probably the 2000 asterisk-election that really started our current era of change and chaos, and at that point I was already thirty. So for pretty much my whole adult life, it has been obvious that it matters who wins elections, matters in terms of law and policy, matters enormously.

And hey, if anyone lived through the historic 111th, with SCHIP, Ledbetter, ACA, Dodd-Frank and the repeal of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell and emerged thinking it doesn’t matter who wins elections, then the historically lame (so far, anyway) 115th wasn’t going to change their minds anyway, I suppose. And of course the important thing, really, is that in the short term there will not be millions of people bankrupted or deprived of medical care, which is very, very important. Still and all, having a broken conservative Party is not good for participatory self-governance, not no-how.

That was the last time I spoke with President Trump,
-Vardibidian.

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