Divided We Conquer: Why Divided Government Is Preferable to Unified Control

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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. …