Control of Congress can be fleeting

While November’s election disheartened conservatives, the bigger picture should look much brighter.

To see it, they need to look past which party narrowly controls Congress and recognize the prolonged period of narrow control itself. America has entered into a period of unprecedented partisan balance — one of marginal majorities — in which political power is now exceptionally precarious.

Never before has the difference between majority and minority status been so small for so long. For conservatives, this delicate balance of political power may be the modern version of the limited government they desire.

The change in which party controls Congress is politically consequential but not institutionally so. Consider, just 8 percent of the House and 6 percent of the Senate switched from Republican to Democrat. Yet this tremor is being trumpeted as a seismic shift.

Majorities change relatively frequently. In just the last 12 years, Democrats have lost (1994), gained (2001), lost (2002), and gained (2006) control of the Senate. More significant are the underlying narrow majorities that have made such rapid changes possible. Majorities are evanescent, but balance has proved enduring.

To appreciate the degree and duration of partisan balance in Congress we need historical comparison.

While the trend toward a higher degree of partisan balance is unmistakable, the current period represents a dramatic closing. During the 19th century the average difference between the majority and minority party relative to the total number of seats was 27.4 percent. For the 20th century the average was 18.1 percent and post-WWII it was 14.3 percent.

However over 1995-2008, the average margin of congressional control is just 5.3 percent. This is a far narrower margin than has existed for the other two closest 14-year periods. During the breakup of FDR’s dominance from 1945-58, the margin of control was just 8.3 percent. During the 1877-1890 aftermath of the Grant scandals, the margin of control was an almost identical 8.4 percent.

The current narrow congressional margin has been consistently tight in both Senate and House. During the current 1995-2008 period, the House average margin of control has been 5.4 percent and the Senate has been 5.2 percent. Each of these totals amounts to the narrowest margins in Senate and House history for so prolonged a period.

To fully appreciate just how narrow these margins are, consider what they mean for shifting party control of each body. During this period, a change in party control of just three seats on average would have shifted control of the Senate and a change in party of control of just twelve seats would have shifted control of the House.

With November’s election and another two years of marginal control in Congress, it is time to recognize that this is no longer an anomaly but a new pattern. A breakout election — from which either party is likely to reap predominant power — is not on the horizon.

The new reality translates into limited ability to act. For the public this means halting, if not reversing, the conception of an ever-expanding activist government, one expected to not only address every problem, but to predict and prevent it. For the parties this means playing the hands they are dealt rather than continuously imagining a new deal will appreciably alter their cards. In a word: it means governing and ceasing the constant campaigning where everything is a political issue and every issue requires divergent political stances.

That narrow margin of control that limits the ability of government to intervene in every instance should not be seen negatively. The requirement of real crisis or real consensus should be the norm, not the aberration of our government’s operation.

The Constitution intended the federal government to be limited and went to novel and complex lengths to achieve it. Yet despite the constitutional intent of limited government, the federal government has found it increasingly hard to limit itself.

The November elections confirmed a new epoch in American politics, but not the one on which most political observers have focused.

The unprecedented degree and duration of narrow margins of control in Congress have demonstrated their enduring nature. During this 14-year period, it has survived changes in party control, war, recession, peace, and prosperity. It has extended over most of two two-term presidencies of each party. It shows no signs of changing, so we ourselves must. In so doing, we should not do so reluctantly, as do those viewing it negatively as gridlock.

Perhaps today’s period of marginal control is supplying the self-discipline that the federal government itself lacks.

(J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the White House Office of Management and Budget from 2001 -2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987-2000.)