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The US Needs a Real Two-Party Congress

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THE Republicans' assumption of power in Congress this week is seen correctly as a turning point in US politics. The nature and importance of the change may not, however, be widely understood.

The Democrats won a House of Representatives majority in 1930 and surrendered it only twice - in 1946 and 1952 - over the last 64 years. They had a Senate majority for eight fewer years over this span, and the independence of individual senators made Democratic ascendancy in the upper chamber less complete than in the lower. The Democrats dominated the House from the Great Depression into the 1990s - the longest continuous one-party control in the history of competitive democracies.

It's been hard for us to see this experience in other than partisan terms. That is, Democrats have tended to like their long congressional ascendancy, though some have acknowledged problems accruing from it. Republicans have decried it, but their protests have often sounded like sour grapes. The Democrats got their majorities through free elections, didn't they?

In fact, this prolonged one-party control was a terrible problem for both parties and for the country. Several generations of House Republicans were consigned to careers in which they saw little prospect of doing more than throwing wrenches into a Democrat-run machine. The Democrats developed bad habits, encouraged by the sense that their House bastion was impenetrable.

The cost in terms of national interests was immeasurable. Alternating power is the principal instrument of popular control in a democracy. When the practical reality that such control was lost settled in (by the early 1970s), it had a devastating impact on public confidence. The ``political game'' was seen to go on the same way ``inside the beltway'' year after year, no matter what the public called for.

By the 1970s, interest groups had learned that they had to live with a Democratic congressional majority, regardless of who controlled the White House. Some Democrats became expert at exploiting this ``you're going to have to deal with us'' status. Democratic incumbents raised huge campaign war chests from political action committees (PACs) - especially from business PACs, though business was supposedly tied to the GOP. In short, ``interest group liberalism'' settled in as the norm in the capital. It was propelled by many different conditions. But central among them was the fact that prolonged one-party control of Congress in an age of heavy governmental intervention encouraged the development of fixed, mutually aggrandizing relationships between the dominant congressional party and the many economic interests.


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