Taking the Initiative: Leadership Agendas in Congress and the "Contract with America"

By John B. Bader | Go to book overview

1
Setting Priorities in
Divided Government

The nation awoke to astonishing headlines on November 9, 1994. Having gone to sleep expecting that the U.S. Senate would fall into Republican hands, voters found the next morning that their handiwork had had a much more profound impact. The House of Representatives had a Republican majority for the first time in over forty years. The partisan arrangement of a Democratic president— Bill Clinton—and a Republican Congress had not been seen since Harry Truman battled the "Do Nothing" 80th Congress in 1947 and 1948. But this arrangement also represented a return to divided government, where political parties split control of the executive and legislative branches. Such a split seemed to promise even greater conflict than the acrimonious 103rd Congress ( 1993-1994). That Congress ended in a chaotic and bitter mess as major initiatives such as health care reform and lobbying reform collapsed. If the system worked so poorly under unified control, we could only brace ourselves for the political Armageddon of divided government.

Are such fears justified? How does the national policy-making system actually work in divided government? The common view is that the system does not work well or at all. Rather than cooperation between the branches, we expect conflict, "gridlock," and finger-pointing. The policy dialogue between the two branches supposedly becomes acrimonious and unproductive. A number of political scientists have begun to question these expectations, however. David Mayhew, for example, shows that legislative productivity does not vary much between periods of single- and split-party government. 1 These findings suggest that the workings of divided government may be poorly understood. Given the prevalence of split party control—30 of 51 years between 1945 and 1996 (59 percent) and nearly 80 percent of the period between 1969 and 1996—such a misunderstanding is serious.

My study fits into this new line of research, seeking to reexamine both our assumptions and the workings of the policy process under split partisan control. 2 More narrowly, I will explore the starting point of the process, the point at which participants choose which issues to

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