What Republican Senate Control Means for America

One of the most important memes of political intellectual culture today is that the Republicans are no better than the Democrats.  Conservatives express this vividly in the notion of RINOs (Republican in name only).  Is this historically true?  More specifically, what might a Republican-controlled Senate mean for American life beginning in 2015?

Since 1980, Republicans have controlled the Senate from 1981 until 1987, from 1995 until 2000, and from 2003 until 2007.  The largest majority for Republicans was 55, held 1997 to 2001 and again in 2005 to 2007.  If electing Republicans to the Senate makes no difference, then we should be able to see in the past 30 years that Republican control of the Senate renders no meaningful difference in several areas -- among them poverty, unemployment, and the deficit. 


The United States experienced the most dramatic reduction in poverty from 1996 to 2000.  Poverty in the United States fell to an astounding level of 11 percent.  Why?

This is an important question, given that poverty is over 15% today and we are approaching the 50th anniversary of a war on poverty.  The Welfare Reform Act of 1995, compelled by a Republican Senate against the wishes of Democratic President Clinton, ushered in the era of big government being "over."

Anti-conservative revisionists credit the booming tech economy of the late 1990s and not the Republican inspired legislation.  But how does that refute the point?  Republican control of the Senate left the economy free to innovate, grow, and reduce poverty alongside welfare reforms.  The poverty rate fell more mildly between 1982 and 1989 -- also correlating with strong Republican control of the Senate. 

The poverty rate rose from 2000 to 2003 and dipped again between 2004 and 2007.  It has risen dramatically since 2008.  It seems rather clear that electing Republicans to the Senate correlated with poverty reductions, and electing Democrats to the Senate in 2007 correlated with increases in poverty.  Republican Senate control correlates with a greater than 2% reduction in the national poverty rate over four-year periods.  That is roughly a million people moved out of poverty.


In 1982, U.S. unemployment reached an incredible 10.2 percent.  By March of 1989, the unemployment rate had fallen to 5.2 percent.  Unemployment rebounded upward to over 7 percent by November of 1992.  Notice again that Republican control of the Senate correlates rather nicely with economic prosperity.

In August of 1995, U.S. unemployment stood at 5.5%.  Incredibly, that rate would drop to 3.4% by 2000.  Here again the robust strength of the U.S. economy while Republicans controlled the Senate is impressive.  Intellectual revisionists give all the credit to the Democratic President Clinton, but it may well be his January 2005 legislative capitulation on "big government" to Newt Gingrich that did the trick.

In June of 2003, unemployment reached a high of 6.3 percent.  It plunged again to 4.4 percent in May of 2007.  Here again it is nearly impossible to miss the powerful correlation with a Republican Senate.  Almost everyone knows what has happened to unemployment since 2007, with renewed Democratic control of the Senate.   Unemployment drops by about half a percent every year Republicans control the body. 

The Deficit

Most Americans would like the federal government to do a better job managing the financial books.  Deficits pile upon deficits to give us our current $17-trillion debt.  Is there any hope of reversing such a problem?  Here conservatives are most adamant that Republicans and Democrats are both big spenders. 

During the 1980s, annual deficits declined dramatically between 1983 and 1984.  Roughly ten percent reduction of the deficit was achieved.  There was another relatively large decline in deficits between 1986 and 1987, when the deficit fell by nearly one third.  Both of these reduction were under Republican Senate leadership, and they managed deficits from around $200 billion down toward $150 billion.  Those amounts seem small today, but they were plenty contentious at the time. 

During the 1990s, the United States actually reduced the annual deficit to zero and created surpluses.  For four years coinciding with Republican Senate control, the U.S. budget ran a surplus in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001.  In the year 2000, the surplus was larger than any of the deficits during the 1980s -- more than $200 billion.  The idea that the Unites States is incapable of running a budget surplus is empirically false and proven by the strong Republican control of the Senate that existed in the late 1990s.  The 2000 surplus was so large that it propelled candidate Bush's argument that these funds should be refunded to taxpayers in the form of tax cuts.

In the 21st century, the deficit peaked initially in 2004 at more than $400 billion.  From 2005 to 2007, the deficit declined every year until reaching a low in 2007 of $161 billion.  The deficit was cut by more than half from 2005 to 2007.  Of course, deficits have exploded since then to over $1 trillion annually in the four budget years of 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.  Republican control of the Senate correlates with approximately 20% annual declines in deficit spending.  


Take note that in all three areas -- poverty, unemployment, and deficit reduction -- Republican control of the Senate correlated with powerful improvements across all of the three most recent decades.  To pretend that Republican control of the Senate makes no possible difference to America is to depart from empirical reality.

Of course, this analysis focuses on the positive results and says little about the profound reversal in fortunes that have taken place with Democratic control of the Senate on these criteria since January 2007.  It does not include party control of the House, which may accelerate or reduce all of these trends -- as was certainly evident in 1995.

This history is vitally important, because the public has been profoundly deceived by our intellectual establishments into believing that almost all aspects of the American dream are doomed.  Reality is far more forgiving to the American dream, and renewing our belief in that great hope requires only some study of the clear evidence of recent history. 

Ben Voth is an associate professor of communication and director of debate at Southern Methodist University.

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