The Premature Burial of Divided Government

The Premature Burial of Divided Government

By Lou Cannon - October 5, 2012

Divided government is more out of fashion than the original Apple iPhone. According to the Gallup Poll's annual Governance Survey, a record-high 38 percent of Americans prefer having one party control both Congress and the White House while a record-low 23 percent prefer control divided between the parties. (The others said it made no difference.)

This finding, a turnaround from a year ago, cheered political partisans. As North Carolina blogger and former Democratic politician D.G. Martin said of partisan reaction to the Gallup survey: “The myth that a divided and deadlocked government is a good thing for our country, that myth is dead.”

Note the tilt provided by “deadlocked,” which equates divided government with gridlock and echoes President Obama’s contention that Republican obstructionism in Congress has prevented him from moving the country ahead.

Divided government was rare during our republic’s first 18 decades but has been frequent since 1954, when Republican President Dwight Eisenhower won a second term while Democrats captured both houses of Congress. We’ve had divided government in 38 of the intervening 58 years, despite complaints that it enables presidents and political parties to avoid responsibility by blaming the other side for the stalemates than have become endemic in Washington.

Responding to these contentions in 2003, economist and former Ronald Reagan adviser William Niskanen made three arguments in behalf of divided government. First, he observed that spending tended to increase at a lower rate under such governments, which once was true but has since been nullified by runaway federal deficits under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, who presided over both unified and divided governments.

Second, writing when the Iraq War was young, Niskanen also offered the theory that war was likelier under unified governments. He was probably right on balance, but the war in Afghanistan has lumbered on under both forms.

Niskanen’s third argument for divided government, however, has great merit. He wrote that the probability of a major reform lasting was higher with divided government “because the necessity of bipartisan support is more likely to protect the law against a subsequent change.” Niskanen cited the Social Security reform of 1983 -- lauded by Obama and Mitt Romney in their debate this week -- which resulted from cooperation between Reagan and Tip O’Neill, the Democratic speaker of the House.

There’s also the Reagan-initiated tax reform bill of 1986, passed when Democrats controlled the House and Republicans the Senate. Another bipartisan reform that has lasted is the 1996 welfare bill passed by a Republican Congress (where the measure’s champion was House Speaker Newt Gingrich) and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare and passed on party lines in 2010 -- when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress -- stands in contrast to these measures. Although the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of most of the ACA, the partisan nature of its passage bedevils the law as states controlled by Republicans drag their heels at implementation in hope that a Romney victory in November will lead to repeal.

Actually, repeal would be a long shot even with a Republican sweep. Although control of the Senate could go either way, the margin is likely to be narrow and 60 votes are required for major actions in the Senate. Even so, the partisan debate has slowed implementation of the ACA. Its central feature is creation of online marketplaces, called exchanges, in which individuals will be able to purchase affordable health insurance policies. So far only 15 states have created these exchanges and some have refused to do so outright.

The Gallup survey found that Democrats currently favor one-party government much more than Republicans do. That fits a historical pattern, wrote Andrew Dugan of the Gallup organization, “in which members of the president’s party have the strongest desire for one-party government when an incumbent is competing for a new term.”

In 2004, when George W. Bush was seeking a second term, Republicans preferred unified government and Democrats favored divided government. However, when one party controls both the White House and Congress, as in 2006 and 2010, all voters favor divided government.

Morris P. Fiorina, a thoughtful Stanford political scientist, believes divided government produces “reasonable compromises when there are reasonable people on both sides,” as happened in 1983 on Social Security. But, he cautioned, it leads to gridlock “in today’s climate of a political tong war.”

Fiorina finds the current situation “a bit scary” as the country approaches the fiscal cliff at the end of the year, when taxes will rise and government spending will plunge unless the president and Congress find a compromise solution in the lame-duck session after the election. If they don’t, many economists predict an ensuing recession.

No matter what polls or pundits say, voters haven’t yet signaled they are ready to abandon divided government. Obama leads Romney, 269-181, in electoral votes in the latest average of polls by RealClearPolitics, with 88 undecided. Meanwhile, Republicans have a 226-183 lead in the House, which means they could lose all 26 closely contested seats and still retain control. Democrats have a 47-43 lead in Senate races with 10 races listed as tossups.

Journalists are wise to avoid election predictions, and my crystal ball is cloudy in any case. But it does seem highly premature to shovel dirt over the grave of divided government. 

Lou Cannon, who is traveling in Scotland, has written about the campaign for RealClearPolitics.

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