It is natural for political parties to seek power. As a Republican, I root for Republicans to win as many elections as possible. But I hope I am objective enough to recognize that our country is often ill-served by the concentration of political power in one party’s hands, regardless of which party holds it.
Our nation’s founders clearly saw this danger. In Federalist 51, James Madison defended the virtue of divided government: "If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."
Madison and his brethren brilliantly sought to limit the danger of one-party factionalism by establishing a political system with numerous checks and balances. But even with obstacles in place, political leaders frequently run amok when power is concentrated in the hands of one party.
American history is replete with examples. The complete Republican federal dominance after the Civil War led to an overzealous Congress in the Reconstruction Period and massive corruption in President Grant’s administration. Democratic one-party rule from the early 1930s until the mid ’40s culminated in sclerotic post-World War II policies that failed to account for the vast changes in our country, and once more, to massive cronyism and corruption.
In the present age, we have experienced again the consequences of unchecked, one-party dominance. From 2001-2007, Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress and the White House. At the height of its power, following the 2004 elections, Republicans had a 55-seat Senate majority and a 232-seat House majority. Some party leaders got carried away and pursued policies that grew their own power at the expense of American taxpayers. Their unlimited power led to runaway spending, an explosion in obscenely wasteful and parochial earmarks, a lack of transparency, and once again corruption that sent several members of Congress to court and some to prison.
To most taxpayers, this was a sad turn of events. For years, Republicans sought political power so they could implement the kind of limited-government reforms they claimed to stand for. But when they finally got their hands on the Senate, House, and White House, some in the GOP abused that power.
The beauty of our democratic system is that it is self-correcting. The problem is that the corrections meted out by an understandably outraged electorate often push the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. Last November, voters understandably upset with Republican excesses, gave the Democratic Party the presidency along with complete and expanded control of Congress. Predictably, one-party Democratic rule is proving susceptible to the same dangers that befell Republicans, and have befallen so many predecessors throughout our history.
Over the past five months, the Democratic monopoly has expanded the federal government by historic proportions. It began with further taxpayer-funded bailouts of Wall Street and the auto companies, then extended the bailout fever to the housing industry. After campaigning on a promise to end the Republicans’ tenure of irresponsibility, full Democratic control in Washington has produced policies that reward rampant irresponsible behavior and penalize innocent and responsible taxpayers who are forced to foot the bill.
Still, there’s more. A unified Democratic government passed a partisan $787 billion stimulus bill and another $410 billion spending bill. After promising to end the Republican tenure of pork-barrel spending, these massive bills included titanic lists of pork projects. The projected budget deficit for the fiscal year 2009 grew to $1.8 trillion, or a shocking and nearly unprecedented 12.3 percent of our gross domestic product. They then proceeded to pass a new record-breaking $3.6 trillion budget for the upcoming year.
Unchecked power pushes parties to excess regardless of which party is in power. It is an inherent part of both human nature and the nature of government.
The danger for our country is that with complete one-party dominance, much damage will be done before the next electoral self-correction. As Democrats near 60 votes in the Senate, their majority will have a blank check to pass any legislation they want. Historically, the final check against one-party control has been the Senate minority party’s ability to mount a filibuster. With only 40 Senate Republicans that tool is lost, leaving Democrats with no need to check their extremes—anything goes.
Most Americans prefer balance in Washington. Like our Founders, they understand that too much concentration of power is a dangerous and frequently corrupting thing. It’s easy for us Republicans to recognize this when we’re in the political wilderness. Here’s hoping that we remember it next time we’re in power. And here’s hoping that in the meantime, sober-thinking Democrats learn the lesson of history and act humbly with the powers they’ve been given.
Pat Toomey ’84 is a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1999-2005, representing Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District.