Americans must secretly love gridlock

MADISON – On this point, voters in Wisconsin and across the United States seem unanimous: They prefer divided government.

While they may profess otherwise to friends, co-workers and pollsters, most Americans secretly like (and repeatedly vote for) gridlock.

Election Day results in Wisconsin tell the story. Nearly 53 percent of the state’s voters backed President Barack Obama’s re-election, despite the fact that native son Paul Ryan was Republican Mitt Romney’s running mate. Some of those same Obama voters in southern Wisconsin re-elected Ryan to his seat in the House of Representatives, an ironic twist that sets up his possible 2016 run for president.

Wisconsin voters narrowly elected liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin to the U.S. Senate, only two years after electing conservative Republican Ron Johnson to the state’s other Senate seat. On most issues, those two lawmakers couldn’t be further apart.

State voters sent a Democrat back to the White House, but maintained the Republican Party’s 5-3 edge in Wisconsin’s House delegation – very much in line with the national decision to keep the House in Republican hands, which will make Obama’s second term even tougher.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin voters who had no qualms about Obama or Baldwin being too liberal for the nation put the state Senate back in Republican hands and kept the GOP majority in the state Assembly.

Get the picture? Voters love divided government almost as they enjoy griping about government’s inability to get things done.

The charitable explanation is that people are naturally inclined to hedge their bets and not put too much faith into one political party or another. It’s the American way. The less-than-charitable view is that we get the government we deserve, even if we need something entirely different.

Because the lame-duck Congress will look very much like the Congress that will take office in January, there’s no reason that work cannot begin now on some of the major problems facing the federal government and the nation as a whole. But that doesn’t mean it will happen.

Barring a bipartisan kumbaya moment in the coming weeks, lawmakers and the White House will continue to disagree on what to do next about the following:

  • Automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, set to take effect early next year.
  • Expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts.
  • Raising the ceiling on the national debt.
  • How to carry out health-care reform, either through Obamacare or something else.

The looming budget cuts offer a stark example. Assuming those cuts take place as scheduled, Wisconsin would see an estimated $67 million in cuts to the University of Wisconsin budget. That includes grants from organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, as well as student aid programs.

The rest of the state budget will feel the pinch, as well. For the two-year period that ends June 30, 2013, federal funding to Wisconsin is $18.9 billion, or 28.8 percent of the state’s total state budget of $65.6 billion. Sequestration cuts of roughly 8 percent would means hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues for the state – just when the state budget is finally getting back on track.

There’s no question the president and Congress must deal with the federal deficit and the rising national debt, one way or the other. The only question is whether they choose to sit back and allow automatic, even indiscriminate, cuts to take effect or work together on a plan that sets true priorities and timetables.

We’re a nation divided in many ways, as Tuesday’s exit polls showed so clearly. A divided people have chosen, once again, a divided government. That could mean more stalemate, or perhaps it will compel politicians – and the public itself – to make principled compromises for the greater good.

Don’t count on the latter, but the stakes are too high to be satisfied with more gridlock. Even if we like it.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

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