The United States of America presents a perfect example of a divided government. In such situations, the different political parties control different political branches in government (Bernecker, 2014). For instance, where the Democrats dominate Congress while Republicans control the presidency. Divided governments have now become the norm more than the exception. In most cases, the election system is designed to create such division in political power (Bernecker, 2014). The concept of divided government in the United States political system is derived from the separation of doctrine. The separation of powers between the different branches ensures independent responsibility that does not overlap with the other branches (Setty, 2008). The benefit of such separation is to provide checks and balances and limit the opposing parties' excessive powers (Setty, 2008). However, in the recent past, divided government structure has come under scrutiny due to the rise of polarization and increased gridlock in government decision-making (Bernecker, 2014). The majority of United States citizens prefer the restructuring of national elections to allow the same political party to control both the presidency and a majority in both chambers of Congress, thereby avoiding divided government.
Schaeffer (2021) notes that one-party control of all political branches is usually common at the start of the presidency, but it often does not last long. For instance, in the recently held US elections, Joe Biden began his presidency with the Democratic Party dominating both Congress chambers (Schaeffer, 2021). This trend is old, as many presidents have always started their terms with control in the legislature and executive. Examples of presidents that began with a unified government include Roosevelt, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump (Schaeffer, 2021). However, the status does not last long as most presidents lose control of the legislature to the opposing party after mid-term elections (Schaeffer, 2021). The Pew Research Centre analyzed the productivity of Congress during the unified government periods. It was revealed that one-party dominance did not necessarily lead to Congress productivity (Schaeffer, 2021). The analysis established that over thirty years, the most productive Congress sessions occurred during the subsistence of divided governments (Schaeffer, 2021).
Additionally, Hanke (2018) argues that the US federal government performs better when divided than unified. The first reason why a divided government is preferred is that the probability of entering major wars is lower when the government is divided and higher when unified. Hanke (2018) argues that Americans entered all the twentieth-century major wars when Congress and the presidency were one-party controlled. Secondly, a divided government is better when seeking policy reforms. The reforms are likely to be enacted and to survive when they received bipartisan support from opposing parties (Hanke, 2018). Examples include the Reagan administration tax reforms enacted in 1981 and 1986 during a divided government, and they survived the test of time (Hanke, 2018). Lastly, Hanke (2018) claims that federal government spending is lower during the divided government periods. The government's shrunk spending has been observed under the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton administrations. For instance, during the divided rule, Clinton cut the GDP three point nine percent over eight years (Hanke, 2018). This development was partly enabled by the "non-defense expenditure reductions" resulting from Clinton's cooperation with the Republican-led Congress as headed by Speaker Gingrich (Hanke, 2018). During the Clinton era, the deals made led the country to an economic boom by avoiding major wars, steering reforms, and reducing spending (Hanke, 2018).
Despite the divided government's predominance, people's preferences have shifted towards needing a single-party control of the United States federal government. Forty-one percent of United States adult citizens prefer to have a president and a Congress dominated by one party (Jones, 2020). Twenty-three percent desire one party to control the presidency and the other to control Congress. In contrast, thirty-two percent think that no difference is made by either a unified or divided government (Jones, 2020). Further, fifty-two percent of Republicans and forty-three percent of Democrats prefer single-party control. In the past, partisan preference was influenced by the arrangement that furthered the party's interest. However, the recent trends show that the inclination towards one-party dominance is increasing for Republicans and Democrats.
Firstly, the challenges of minority and majority politics in the US political systems are magnified by a divided government structure. A divided government poses a threat to party operations and the federal government as a whole (Lumen Learning, 2021). It is challenging for the ruling party to fulfill campaign promises because the presidency and Congress are expected to cooperate to pass legislation. Additionally, individual politicians are forced to oppose a beneficial agenda due to party loyalty, especially when such a move is advantageous to their reelection bid (Lumen Learning, 2021). One of the ways a divided government can impact government operations is shutdown. There have been various instances where the government was forced to shut down operations due to disagreements between the executive and legislature when opposing parties control them.
For instance, in 1976, the government was shut down for ten days after a disagreement between Gerald Ford, a Republican president, and a Democratic-dominated Congress, over the cabinet department's funding (Lumen Learning, 2021). The problem is dire when the president and one chamber of Congress belong to an opposing party. During the term of Ronald Reagan, government operations were closed eight times due to a dispute between Reagan and the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-dominated House of Representatives (Lumen Learning, 2021). Some of the issues that caused division under the Reagan administration included abortion rights, civil rights, and spending reduction. Recently, in 2016, the Republican-dominated Senate refused to consider President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, after Antonin Scalia's death (Jones, 2020). Therefore, a divided government can lead stalling of necessary government activities due to disputes, most of which are political.
Secondly, the challenges of a divided government have been exacerbated by polarization caused by a gradual shift in the relationship between the two dominant parties in the United States: Republicans and Democrats (Lumen Learning, 2021). In the period up to the 1970s, Americans benefited from bipartisan politics, which was characterized by cooperation and compromise between the opposing parties (Lumen Learning, 2021). The laws that were passed received considerable support from both parties. In the past few decades, political moderates have dropped out of politics, causing the parties to grown further apart ideologically (Lumen Learning, 2021). The party polarization incident means that Democrats and Republicans have increasingly become divergent (Lumen Learning, 2021). Congress no longer had mixed voting recording, and members are likely to support their party on debated issues.
The Pew Research Center found that the 2016 presidential campaign was marred with "intense partisan divisions and animosity" (Pew Research Center, 2020). The negative perception from partisans towards people of the opposite party has been deepened (Pew Research Center, 2020). For instance, the majority of Republicans consider Democrats to be "more immoral" and "more unpatriotic," while Democrats view Republicans to be "more closed-minded" than other Americans (Pew Research Center, 2020). Besides, eighty-five percent of Republicans and seventy-eight percent of Democrats agree that there is an increase in party division. Most of them acknowledge that this partisan division trend is worrying (Pew Research Center, 2020). The divide is so apparent that Americans describe these parties as too extreme (Pew Research Center, 2020). While it is difficult to identify the cause of intense polarization, it is difficult to expect that opposing parties are likely to work together when they have grown further apart.
Opponents of the divided government argue that gridlock is the main reason they do not prefer this system. Gridlock is measured by the number of salient matters on the national agenda left unattended at the end of each Congressional term (McLennan, 2011). It is assumed that a snarl-up is expected whenever power is divided between Congress and the presidency (McLennan, 2011). It is argued that a divided government leads to contentious executive-legislature relations, which might impede the president's ability to make administrative and judicial appointments (McLennan, 2011). On the other hand, proponents of divided governments argued that the system fosters healthy competition between the legislature and the presidency, resulting in quality reforms (McLennan, 2011). There have been various studies aimed at identifying the impact of the divided government of holdup on policymaking. Saeki (2009) found that a divided government does not affect policy trajectory. There are other factors such as veto players, filibusters, and override that a considerable impact on policy enactment instead of party control (Saeki, 2009). This finding challenges the commonly existing notion that divided government leads to conflicts that negatively impact legislative productivity. Essentially, there is no significant statistical difference between successful legislation between a divided and unified government.
Coleman (2014) argues that a unified government is more productive than a divided government. This conclusion was reached when Coleman (2014) set out to determine whether unified control presidency and Congress led to success in public policy enactment. Coleman (2014) observes that a divided government supports the hindrances inherent in the Constitution, allowing legislatures to implement standoffs strategically, making it challenging to enact significant policies. The public does not know whom to blame when policymaking fails or gives credit after successful legislation (Coleman, 2014). On the other hand, a unified control government leads to many enactments and is more responsive to the public mood than a divided government. In a unified structure, parties can provide incentives that inspire members to cooperate and ignore the Constitutional hindrances (Coleman, 2014). For instance, in a unified government, the Senate supermajorities can neutralize filibusters, limiting resistance to policy proposals that lack bipartisan support (Coleman, 2014). On the other hand, in a divided government, Senate supermajorities would constrain the enactment of essential policies (Coleman, 2014). Essentially, a same-party control system is preferred to avoid the limitations of a divided government.
However, the unified government also faces opposition. Opponents of a unified government argue that the Constitution's framers envisioned a divided government where transparency and accountability were fostered (Setty, 2008). The separation of powers allowed Congress to provide checks and balances on the executive (Setty, 2008). Generally, the US political system had assigned Congress as its grand inquest. In a unified government, the power of Congress to limit the executive's excessive powers is significantly impaired (Setty, 2008). In an ideal scenario, Congress members are not supposed to be influenced by party politics during an investigation (Setty, 2008). However, in modern political reality, Congress members are swayed by party pressure. For instance, committee chairs are selected based on party membership and awarded to people who display party loyalty (Setty, 2008). Therefore, in a unified government, Congressional oversight is hindered because Congressional leaders will be unwilling to investigate their national party leader, who is the president (Setty, 2008). Essentially, until there is a change in Congress's control, the legislature cannot provide the required oversight under a unified government.
Similarly, Kuttner (2004) argues that a divided government is more attractive than a single-party controlled government. Kuttner (2004) acknowledges that American has experienced single-party control in the past, as exemplified by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration and the better part of the nineteenth century (Kuttner, 2004). However, it is noted that in those eras, the majority party gained dominance through widespread popular support (Kuttner, 2004). The electorate is highly divided in the present times, and one-party control might not be the answer for Americans (Kuttner, 2004). According to Kuttner (2004), a one-party system is dangerous because it can lead to legislative dictatorship. The central leadership phenomenon would mean that only the views of the majority party are incorporated in policy while minority views are ignored (Kuttner, 2004). Further, the one-party system can lead to appropriations abuses by passing appropriations bills without wholesome considerations (Kuttner, 2004). Eventually, a permanent congressional majority is not feasible for the advancement of American democracy.
The question as to whether a unified government is superior or inferior over a divided government is a complex one. Sieber & Izraeli (2018) approached this comparison by examining the scenarios when either Democrats or Republicans were in control of the government. The economic area performs well when Democrats control a unified government than when Republicans are in control (Sieber & Izraeli, 2018). Democrats focus on expanding the economy by increasing employment rates, while the Republican-controlled government reported decreased unemployment rates. Similarly, the unified Democratic-led government reports low poverty levels and low crime rates when it comes to the social arena, while the Republicans-led report increased poverty rates (Sieber & Izraeli, 2018). Therefore, it is not just about having a unified government for the United States but determining which political party is likely to enact relevant policies when they have control (Sieber & Izraeli, 2018). Certain policy areas might benefit from a Democratic-led unified government, while others might benefit from a Republican-led unified system.
Therefore, in determining whether the US national elections should be restructured to have the same political party controlling both the presidency and a majority in both chambers of Congress, the answer is not black and white. Scholars are divided on the issue. Others argue in favor of a divided government, and others argued in favor of a unified government. Besides, recent trends show Americans leaning towards wanting a one-party controlled presidency and Congress. However, there is no significant difference between the quantity of legislation passed in a unified and divided government. While it is difficult to decide, the odds are in favor of a divided government. The framers of the Constitution intended to have political branches that would oversight each other's actions and limit excessive possession of power by one arm of government. Therefore, there is no reason to avoid a divided government. Instead, policymakers should find a way to streamline the system under which separation of powers can benefit the public. A divided government guards the American democracy and ensures that abuse of power is minimized. Since the unified government has no significant advantage over a divided government, it would be proper to maintain the political structure and seek ways to improve. Improvements can be made by pursuing bipartisan politics and encouraging political moderates to participate in elections.
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Hanke, S. H. (2018, November 23). Government works better when divided. Cato Institute. https://www.cato.org/commentary/government-works-better-when-divided
Jones, J. M. (2020, October 2). New high favors one-party control of US federal government. Gallup.com. https://news.gallup.com/poll/321158/new-high-favors-one-party-control-federal-government.aspx
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