No surprises here…a major overhaul in Congress was decided in the election this past week. Some people are celebrating as if our problems will be automatically solved by this election…others are woeful as if the world as they know it is coming to an end. Perceptions are really amazing, aren’t they? One comment surprised me though…“now that the Republicans dominate.” Since when does a majority in one house of Congress signify ‘dominance?’ In my book…that simply means power sharing. While it hasn’t been practiced very much, it’s probably healthier for our country when it happens. So…I decided to do a bit of research on the past Congresses. The results of my short study are pretty interesting.
I did a quick internet search for statistics of the past 33 Congresses…for a total of 66 years…starting with the 79th Congress in January of 1946. The data included the party of the President, the majority party in the Senate and the majority party in the House of Representatives. This was a good foundational basis. I have to say…even though I have lived through almost all of this time period…I was surprised by the results. Hey, everyone…let’s put this election into context for a moment!
During the past 66 years:
- The President has been supported by his party in the majorities in both the Senate and the House in 28 years…22 years for Democrats and 6 years for Republicans
- The President from one party has been confronted by the opposition party with majorities in both the Senate and the House in 30 years…2 Democratic Presidents for 8 years and 6 Republican Presidents for 22 years
- Congress had party majorities in both the Senate and the House at the same time in 58 of these 66 years…44 years for Democrats and 14 years for Republicans
- That means…we’ve only experienced a balance of power with different political parties in the majorities of the Senate and the House in 8 out of 66 years…that’s only 12%
It’s amazing to me to realize that the same party has been in the majority in both houses of Congress for 88% of the years since World War 2. A thorough analysis of the benchmark legislation during each of these Congresses would probably show some significant times when this majority lock was very good for the nation in the long-term, like in the 60s in civil rights and in the creation of Medicare. The majority party had won the election, so it was more-or-less accepted that they got to set the agenda. After all, the public had spoken and the minority party recognized that…reluctantly.
But…I also see an important drawback with this back-and-forth dominance…a drawback that is getting more severe in our fast-moving, technological, global economy. Here’s the problem as I see it…our current political system is ploddingly slow, incapable of dealing with complexity, and focuses far too much on ideologically-rigid agendas of special interest groups and the ultra-wealthy. We can look back in history to see that deciding an agenda every 2-4 years worked pretty well…up until about the end of the Cold War. Then…everything accelerated rapidly…and this trend is continuing at a dizzying speed.
It might be a serendipity moment in history…when we come to grips with a new reality with creativity and agility. The new, power-sharing 112th Congress has the potential to be highly-effective…if both parties can become active problem-solvers, rather than ideological robots. We don’t have to be stuck in legislative gridlock for the next two years…if it happens, that will be a choice rather than a necessity. In this Congress and in the years to come, we need an agile, creative and inclusive legislative effort…with backing and encouragement from our President.
Here’s the critical piece of this political puzzle…in 2012, we need to set our sights on a new breed of politicians…ones who can be problem-solvers. I’m encouraged by the initial message of some Republican leaders, saying they want to listen first to the American people. My suspicion is, however, that they feel they already know everything they need for legislative gridlock and political gamesmanship. I hope I’m wrong…and so should all Americans. In our fast-moving, highly-competitive global economy, we can’t stand still for long without serious consequences. But…concerning Congress, I’m cautiously optimistic. Let’s all hold Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Tea Party Libertarians, and ourselves accountable. The stakes are too high to even contemplate failure.