In the United States, divided government describes a situation in which one party controls the White House and another party controls one or both houses of the United States Congress. Divided government is suggested by some to be an undesirable product of the separation of powers in the United States’ political system, resulting in political gridlock and little progress. By others, it is considered a desirable outcome that helps maintain checks on the excesses of opposing political Parties. In the 2008 US presidential election, the topic received attention because the prospect of one-party rule loomed and subsequently became a reality with the election of Democrat Barack Obama and further additions to the Democratic majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives in the United States Congress.
John McCain argued, in the last days of his presidential campaign, that electing Barack Obama would be a bad idea because it would lead to one-party rule and that this would be harmful. With the election of Barack Obama, the debate continues as people consider whether the reality of one-party rule is a good thing, whether it will help the country achieve its objectives, and whether Democrats should be cautious about certain specific risks involved in one-party rule. The debate regarding divided government vs. one-party rule is framed by some of the following questions. Does divided government create a necessary check on government and the excesses of one political party or another? Can presidents of one political party more effectively constrain the actions of their own party? Does the Supreme Court provide a sufficient check on one-party rule? Is divided government more stable? Can one-party rule be important in passing legislation quickly and solving crises? Does divided government lift up more centrist, and perhaps more long-lasting ideas and reforms? Does divided government constrain corruption? What does history demonstrate? Have divided or one-party governments been more successful? What do voters prefer?
My strong preference for a check and balance on the accumulation of power leads me to hope Republicans salvage a sliver of power from this Democratic tide.
James Madison wrote in Federalist paper 51, and later added – “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Any case where government has been able to ‘control itself’ would be the exception. Most examples of one-party rule are cautionary tales of excess as the minority party is shut up and shut down. Monopolies are seldom in the public interest, and political monopolies are no exception.” John Adams – “Divided we ever have been, and ever must be.” Ben Franklin – “It is not enough that your Legislature should be numerous; it should also be divided.” Thomas Jefferson – “Divided we stand, united we fall.”
“Indeed, much of Barack Obama’s argument for election is based on ending not just George Bush’s administration, but on overturning Republican philosophy on everything from Iraq to regulating markets to tax policy. Most of those issues emerged during Bush’s first six years, when the GOP also held Congress.
Republicans deserve a thrashing, but the pendulum would be swinging too far in the opposite direction if GOP misrule yielded to Democratic monopoly. It would satisfy partisan competitiveness and a thirst for revenge among angry activists, but would not benefit the nation.” David Rohde, a Duke University political scientist – “You might be able to do big things that have been blocked by divided government. But the potential pitfall is you can overreach, alienate the opposition party and alienate independents — sowing the seeds of your own destruction.”
“A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions,” Madison wrote.
Political parties are important expressions of “auxiliary precautions,” especially when the minority has a share of governmental authority with which to wage dissent. For example, if Obama wins the White House, a Republican Senate would at least have advise and consent power on key nominations as well as a say in legislation. Parliamentary rules are a lesser defense against one-party abuse. If Democrats win the Senate with 60 seats, a real possibility, they would be able to silence GOP voices on virtually any issue.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, said in October of 2008, “If there were huge majorities in the House and the Senate and John McCain were president, it is more likely that Congress would flex their muscle and do whatever they wanted to do regardless of John McCain — because they wouldn’t need John McCain’s approval. On the other hand, if you have Barack Obama in the White House, he believes in bipartisan cooperation. He wants to change this ‘I control the mountain and therefore I will move the mountain mentality’ in Washington.”
“One party has total control only if they have 60 members of the Senate, one reasons liberals are going crazy over that number this year. This is exceptionally unlikely to happen this year. Nate Silver projects that there is only about a 17% chance of that happening given the electorate.”
“in terms of foriegn policy, the development the past 50 years has strongly favored the President over Congress. Indeed, Bush has been able to do almost whatever he wanted in foreign policy, even after the Democrats took back Congress in 2006. Bill Clinton initiated the Kosovo campaign in the middle of being impeached.”
“This is also true when the same party is in control of Congress and the White House. I’ll take the Farm Bill and raise him every other bill I’ve mentioned: Tax Cuts, Energy Bill, Katrina Bills, No Child Left Behind, Medicare, etc. Even the poorly organized Democrats were able to negotiate somewhat with those. Moreover, even with undivided government, when negotiation failed, bills did not pass (Social Security).”
“Second, the Democrats do not have the supreme court, and there is no early prospect of a firm Democratic majority on it. The conservatives on it are still fairly young and energetic. Thomas and Scalia are very far right, and Alito and Roberts only a little less so. Kennedy is a swing vote but not exactly a liberal. The likely retirements will mostly come from the ranks of liberals, so that Obama and a Democratic congress will only be able to maintain a status quo. It is true that they can stop a far-right putsch on the Court, but that is hardly one party rule.”
“the Republicans did have one-party rule in 2000-2006 and really did have all three branches of government under their control. Can anyone think of any major Republican leader in that period who argued that it was a bad thing and who urged voters to cast ballots for Democrats in order to restore some checks and balances?”
“When federal power was last split, some of the GOP’s good ideas became law: replacing welfare with workfare, curbing the growth of spending and forcing the government to live within its means. And many of its bad ideas — authorizing state-sponsored prayer in schools, criminalizing leaks of classified material — went nowhere.”
“we don’t believe either party has a monopoly on policy wisdom. We liked Mr. Bush’s insistence on accountability in education, tempered by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s reminder that you couldn’t fix urban schools without some money. We don’t support the Democrats’ plan to allow unionization without secret ballots, but we agree with them that National Labor Relations Board rules have tipped too far toward management. And so on. We like to think, in other words, that a process in which both parties play a role can sometimes lead to better outcomes and not always to dead ends.”
“Point Two. The probability that a major reform will last is usually higher with a divided government because the necessity of bipartisan support is more likely to protect the reform against a subsequent change in the majority party.
The Reagan tax laws of 1981 and 1986, for example, were both approved by a House of Representatives controlled by the Democrats and have largely survived. The major potential reforms of agriculture, telecommunications, and welfare in 1996 were approved by Clinton and a Republican Congress, although only the welfare reform has survived subsequent legislative and regulatory changes. The primary exception to this pattern, of course, is the Great Society. My judgment, however, is that the prospect for a major reform of the federal tax code, Medicare, or Social Security will be dependent on more bipartisan support than now seems likely in a united Republican government.”
“Our federal government serves us better (or maybe less badly) when at least one house of Congress is controlled by a different party than the party of the president. Under divided government, the rate of increase of real per capita federal spending has been significantly lower, a war is most unlikely, and so is a major increase in entitlements.”
“Point Three. The prospect of a major war is usually higher with a united government, and the current war makes that clear.[..]Each of the four major American wars in the 20th century, for example, was initiated by a Democratic president with the approval of a Congress controlled by Democrats. The war in Iraq, initiated by a Republican president with the support of a Republican Congress, is consistent with this pattern and has already proved to be the only use of U.S. military force lasting more than a few days that was initiated by a Republican president in over a century.”
“Every American concerned about excessive government intrusion into our lives should greet with optimism the return to a system of partisan checks and balances[…]The last four years have witnessed an unprecedented level of government interference in individual lives. While National Security Agency wiretapping and detainee rights have attracted much attention, examples of abuse of power in other arenas abound, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration’s raids on medical marijuana patients.”
David R. Mayhew, in a book called Divided We Govern (1991), examined the whole postwar period and concluded that, all else being equal, “unified party control contributes nothing to the volume of important enactments.”
“a search for policies enacted since 2003 that have enjoyed either substantive success or broad public support yields results that can only be called dispiriting. No other four-year period in memory looks as bleak.”
“Since Americans have an innate mistrust of concentrated power, the notion [of divided government] could gain traction for voters with short memories. They would have to forget the past two years [2006-2008] of ‘checks and balances’ [a Republican president and Democratic Congress] that prevented extending health care to impoverished children and setting reasonable timetables for withdrawal from Iraq, among other majority desires.”
“Let’s first look at those past administrations that enjoyed singular success. Most lists would include George Washington’s two terms, Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, Theodore Roosevelt’s (just about) two terms, and Franklin Roosevelt’s four terms. A longer list not based on consensus might include Thomas Jefferson’s first term, Andrew Jackson’s two terms, Woodrow Wilson’s first term, Harry Truman’s two terms, and Ronald Reagan’s two terms. Of the consensus choices, all enjoyed a united government (in George Washington’s days, there were not really parties).”
Now let’s look at the more disastrous moments in the history of American administrations–where charges of impeachment were brought, and recriminations paralyzed the government. That would have to include the administrations of Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton–all instances of divided government. I’d also add the last two years of Wilson’s second term when divided government (and Wilson’s illness) set America on the track of irresponsibility in foreign and domestic policy. So if you look at America’s moments of glory and ignominy, the conclusion is inescapable: divided government is a curse, not a blessing, and should be avoided, if at all possible.
“If you really long for change, divided government is the last thing you should want. In a parliamentary system, like the one in Britain, divided government is impossible. You vote for the party, not the person. Whichever party wins the most seats or can cobble together a majority through alliances with other parties gets to form a government and choose a prime minister. The winning party is generally able to enact its agenda. More important, that party can be held accountable if it does not enact its agenda or if it does and the policies fail.”
“The key is to keep the mandate straight, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a member of the House leadership and a senior Clinton White House aide. “There are certain things that people this year are voting for and certain things they’re voting against. We’ll be successful as a party if we’re known as the party of reform. We will be unsuccessful if we do things the way they’ve always been done.”
“People who want divided government are afraid of politics. They imagine that under divided government, the wise elders of both parties would sit around a table and “rise above politics” with pragmatic solutions for everything. But it doesn’t work that way, and it shouldn’t. Our disagreements are generally about trade-offs—money for some new government benefit, the blood of our young for some foreign-policy goal, freedom for protection from terrorists, bureaucracy for the safety of drugs or cars or financial derivatives. All of these trade-offs could be settled by letting some board of elders split the difference. But then it wouldn’t be much of a democracy, would it?”
When there are many centrists in a government, opposing political parties can better come together to reach compromises and take action. But, when political parties are more polarized, it is more difficult for a divided government to find common ground and take action.