Divided we conquer: why divided government is preferable to unified control.
Article Type: Critical essay
Subject: Separation of powers (Analysis)
Author: McLennan, Will
Pub Date: 09/22/2011
Publication: Name: International Social Science Review Publisher: Pi Gamma Mu Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Pi Gamma Mu ISSN: 0278-2308
Issue: Date: Fall-Winter, 2011 Source Volume: 86 Source Issue: 3-4
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Name: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 279722815
Full Text: The question of whether divided government in the United States is good or bad cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. While decision-making under such circumstances is far from perfect, shared power gets a decidedly bad rap. Criticisms leveled against divided government include problems arising from so-called "gridlock," the fear that it leads to highly contentious executive-legislative relations, and the difficulty it may cause the president in making administrative and judicial appointments. On the flip side, one can argue that divided government limits the size and scope of government and fosters healthy competition between presidents and Congress that produces quality legislation.

Perhaps the most common criticism leveled against divided government is that it produces gridlock. The level of gridlock stemming from divided government can be determined by examining "the share of salient issues on the nation's agenda left in limbo at the close of each Congress." (1) At first glance, gridlock seems inevitable when power is shared, but there appears to be no statistically significant difference in terms of comparing legislative accomplishments of governments under unified or divided rule. As political scientist David Mayhew points out, the passage rate of "significant" legislation during times of divided government is only marginally lower than that during periods of unified control. In fact, Mayhew finds that unified government produces only about one more piece of significant legislation per two-year election cycle. (2) Using a narrower definition to describe significant legislation, Sean Kelly, another political scientist, arrives at a similar conclusion. Divided government, he asserts, produces only about three fewer pieces of legislation per two-year interval, a result that, again, is not statistically significant. (3) Thus, it appears that claims that divided government leads to "gridlock" are little more than hyperbole.

There are numerous examples of major legislation adopted during periods of divided government. For example, the Marshall Plan resulted in the greatest investment of foreign aid in American history. Dealing with a Republican-controlled Congress, President Harry S. Truman did not have the luxury of unified party control, but that did not stop him from gaining support for sending financial aid to Western Europe. Working closely with the Republican Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Arthur Vandenburg, Truman crafted compromise legislation that incorporated many Republican ideas into the final bill without affecting the integrity of the plan. This provided political cover for congressional Republicans who supported a foreign aid bill unpopular in their districts because it only provided aid to Western Europe. (4)

President Dwight D. Eisenhower also achieved a number of legislative victories during a period of divided government. For example, the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 injected over $31 billion into the interstate highway system. At the time, this constituted the largest investment in public roads in American history. While passage of this bill required compromise, chiefly on its "pay-as-you-go" provision, consensus was eventually reached and the American people benefited greatly from this piece of bipartisan legislation. (5) The Agricultural Act of 1954 provides another example of a legislative triumph for President Eisenhower. In an effort to limit government involvement in agriculture, Eisenhower tried to curb farm subsidies, but opposition from farm state Republicans, notably Clifford Hope (R-KS), caused him to scale back his ambitious plan. (6) This demonstrates that policy rifts do not necessarily occur only across party lines; they may also occur within parties based on self-interest. This further undermines claims that unified government cannot be stymied by gridlock.

One-party rule (i.e., control of the White House and both houses of Congress) does not guarantee smooth passage of major legislation. For nearly a century, both unified and divided governments failed to achieve comprehensive health care reform. Over the last two decades, unified government controlled by the Democratic party struggled to secure such legislation. The filibuster rule in the Senate, which requires a supermajority for the passage of legislation, makes it difficult for the majority in Congress to steamroll the minority under most circumstances, even during periods of unified party rule. Moreover, on at least one major issue, climate change, geography has played an equally important role as partisan politics in determining the outcome of such legislation. Normally progressive senators, such as Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), helped stall the House "cap-and-trade bill" carbon emissions bill because of their unwavering support for the coal industry. (7)

Another criticism of divided government is that it breeds toxic relations between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. This seems especially true when one considers the current dynamic between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans. But this claim does not hold up under careful scrutiny. According to Mayhew, the increase in the number of congressional investigations into executive matters during periods of divided government is insignificant. (8) Furthermore, as political scientist Morris Fiorina points out, some of the most contentious congressional investigations have occurred during periods of unified government. (9) It therefore appears that conflict is inevitable in a democracy and is often creative. (10)

Perhaps the harshest criticism leveled against divided government is that it makes it impossible to confront critical problems that require wide-ranging comprehensive solutions. While this may be true, this charge may not actually he a negative. Consider the following two pieces of legislation passed during periods of unified government which produced unintended results. At the time of the adoption of Medicare in 1965, the House Ways and Means Committee predicted that the program would cost $12 billion in 1990. (11) By then, Medicare cost $110 billion. (12) Medicare may well have been necessary, but if one considers the budgetary consequences of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society programs he/she might reconsider the implications of uninterrupted unified government over a lengthy period of time. Another example of a bill with unintentional harmful consequences is the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 (or the Bush tax cuts). Together with companion legislation adopted two years earlier, this bill increased the national deficit by an astounding $1.7 trillion. (13) These examples show that periods of divided government can prevent the adoption of legislation that goes "too far, too fast." (14)

The term "divided government" itself can, at times, be a misnomer when one considers that even in today's hyper-partisan climate in American politics there are a number of issues where politicians have found common ground. For example, the environmental movement enjoys bipartisan support. Recently, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) found common ground with Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) in proposing the CLEAR Act. (15) Similarly, Cantwell worked with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) on Wall Street reform. (16) To cite another example, conservative Republican Saxby Chambliss (GA) and moderate Democrat Mark Warner (VA) have proposed a bipartisan solution to decrease the federal budget deficit. (17) These areas of bipartisanship are not confined to members of Congress. President Obama recently secured support from Republicans on a number of issues, including TARP, financial reform, and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. (18)

Advocates of unified government claim that it is far superior to divided government because it allows for greater accountability. When government is under unified party control, it is easy to assign blame or give credit for the outcome of legislation. Assuming that this is true, one must then ask is it worth it? From 2001 to 2007, a mostly unified Republican-controlled government passed tax cuts that increased the deficit dramatically, pushed through a prescription drug benefit bill that the federal government could not afford, and prosecuted two wars that have cost the country much blood and treasure. The American public eventually held that government accountable in the mid-term elections of 2006, but by then the damage had been done. Is it worth experiencing such policy failures to make it easier for the American public to assign blame for the consequences of those policies?

In writing Federalist No. 10, James Madison warned of the dangers of the "violence of majority faction." (19) The government that he and the other Framers of the Constitution designed sought to limit the powers of each branch of government in order to protect the masses against the tyranny of the majority. Over time, constitutional safeguards that provided this protection have, in many ways, eroded to the point of irrelevance. For example, the Constitution states that Congress shall have the power to declare war, but it has not done so since World War II. Since then, the United States has been engaged in a number of military conflicts, the most costly occurring during periods of unified government (e.g., Afghanistan and Iraq).

The erosion of the constitutional principle of separation of powers has been most evident in the increasing politicization of the judiciary. Legal scholar Jeffrey Toobin observes that in his brief tenure as Chief Justice, John Roberts, "even more than [Antonin] Scalia, who has embodied judicial conservatism during a generation of service on the Supreme Court[,] ... has served the interests, and reflected the values, of the contemporary Republican Party." (20) The appointment of ideologues to the U.S. Supreme Court, together with the injection of partisan money into state judicial campaigns, has reduced what is suppose to be the most impartial branch of the government to a mini-legislature. In the absence of reform, divided government can provide the checks and balances envisioned in the making of the Constitution. A Congress controlled by the party opposing the president can prevent partisan appointments. Equally important, a state legislature can limit the judicial discretion of an overly political court.

Divided government, by itself, is not a panacea that can cure the nation's ills. It would be absurd to claim that having one party in charge of the executive branch and the other in control of the legislative branch of the federal government is all that is necessary to ensure sound government. As has been shown, divided government is certainly no worse than unified government in terms of effectiveness. In fact, it possesses a number of benefits. It can provide a "return to normalcy" for a country seeking to recover from periods of momentous change. It can also offer assurances that judicial appointees are not simply receiving rubber stamp acceptance from those charged with confirming them. Finally, divided government gives some assurance that the nation's leaders are listening to one another if, for no other reason, that they have no choice other than to do so.


(1) Sarah A. Bender, "Going Nowhere: A Gridlocked Congress?" Brookings Review 18 (September 2000): 17.

(2) David Mayhew, Divided We Govern: Party Control, Lawmaking, and Investigations (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991). Mayhew formulated his definition of significant legislation by examining editorial commentary on legislation in both the New York Times and the Washington Post, and by consulting academic papers written by policy experts regarding particular legislation.

(3) Sean Kelley, "Divided We Govern: A Reassessment," Polity 25 (Spring 1993):481.

(4) Harold Hitchens, "Influences on the Congressional Decision to Pass the Marshall Plan," Western Political Quarterly 21, no. 1 (March 1968):51-68.

(5) Richard S. Conley, The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment (College Station, TX: Texas A&M Press, 2003), 99. 'Pay-as-you go' legislation requires that any spending bills must be offset either by tax increases or spending cuts so as not to add to the national deficit.

(6) Ibid., 98.

(7) Jean Chemnick, "Jay Rockefeller--The Evolution of a Coal State Senator," New York Times', January 18, 2011, www.nytimes.com/.gwire/2011/01/18/18greenwire-jayrockefeller-the-evolution- of-a-coal-state-s-4772.html (accessed March 14, 2011), 1-2.

(8) Mayhew, Divided We Govern, 9-10.

(9) Morris Fiorina, Divided Government, 2nd ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 88.

(10) By being creative, legislators must not only rely on public policy proposals put forth by various think tanks associated with their party, but more importantly, they need to be able to reach solutions amendable to both parties. A recent example would be Senator Mitch McConnell's debt-ceiling proposal.

(11) See Robert J. Myers, "Actuarial Cost Estimates for the Old-Age, Survivors, Disability, and Health Insurance System as Modified by the Social Security Amendments of 1967," in Committee Print, Committee on Ways and Means, House of Representatives, 90th Cong., 1st sess., December 11, 1967 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1967).

(12) Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2010, Historical Tables--16.1,334.

(13) Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, March Labonte and Andrew Hanna, "The Impact of Major Legislation on Budget Deficits, 2001-2009," March 23, 2010, 12.

(14) Haley Barbour, "Obamacare is going too far, too soon, too fast, and costing too much," Washington Examiner, August 12, 2008, http:washingtonexaminer.com/opeds/2009/08/gov-barbour-obamacare-going-too- far-too-soon-too-fast-and-costing too-much (accessed July 14, 2011), 1.

(15) Christa Marshall, "Cantwell-Collins Bill Generates Lobbying Frenzy," New York Times, February 16, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2010/02/15/15climatewirecantwell-collins-bill- generates-lobbying-fre-54450.html (accessed March 14, 2011), 1-2.

(16) David M. Herszenhorn, "Glass-Steagall Wall Revisited," New York Times, May 6, 2010, http://thecaucus.blogs/nytimes.com2010/glass-steagall-wall-revisited (accessed March 14, 2011), 1.

(17) Jennifer Epstein, "Mark Warner, Saxby Chambliss Hawk Budget Cuts," Politico March 8, 2011, http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0311/50851 .html (accessed March 14, 2011), 1-3.

(18) Ryan Grim, "TARP Vote: Obama Win, Senate Effectively Approves $350 Billion," Huffington Post, January 15, 2009, http://www.huffingpost.com/2009/01/15/tar.p-voteobama-wins-350 n 158292.html (accessed June 17, 2011), 1-2; Sunlen Miller, "Obama Praises 3 GOP Votes on Financial Regulatory Reform," ABC News, July 13, 2010, blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2010/07/obama-praises-votes-on- financialregulatory-reform-.html (accessed June 17, 2011), 1-2; Alexander Bolton, "Dems Reach Magic Number on Arms Treaty as GOP Support Builds," The Hill, December 20, 2010, http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/134551 -go_p-senators-concede-start- will-winenough-votes-to-pass-handing-to-obama (accessed June 17, 2011), 1-3.

(19) Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (New York: Mentor Book, 1961), 77-84.

(20) Jeffrey Toobin, "No More Mr. Nice Guy: The Supreme Court's Stealth Hardliner," New Yorker, March 25, 2009, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/25/ 090525fa fact toobin (accessed March 14, 2011), 4.


DANIEL P. FRANKLIN is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. WILL McLENNAN received his BA in political science and sociology from Georgia State University in May 2011. He is currently attending the University of Chicago School of Law. CHRISTIAN JOHN will receive his BA in political science from Georgia State University in May 2012.
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