Government and Politics


Divided government

Anthony J. Bennett

Anthony Bennett explains the what, how, why and when of divided government


Divided government is the term used in the USA to refer to the situation in which one party controls the presidency while the other party controls Congress. In other words, one party controls the executive while the other party controls the legislature. Of course, this could not occur in the UK as the executive is always controlled by the party which controls the House of Commons.


How does divided government come about in the USA?


Divided government can occur in the USA because the executive and the legislature are elected separately. It may even occur when the elections are held on the same day. On 5 November 1996, for example, voters re-elected Democrat Bill Clinton to the presidency but elected Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate. It can also occur as a result of the mid-term elections, held 2 years into the presidential 4-year term. In November 1992, Americans elected Democrat Bill Clinton to the presidency as well as Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress. But 2 years later, in the 1994 mid-term elections, party control of both houses switched to the Republicans.


Why does divided government occur?


Two factors enhance the chance of divided government:

  • an increasing number of independent voters

  • an increased occurrence of split-ticket voting

Back in 1952 when polling of voters' party identification began, only 22% of voters identified themselves as independent. By 1992 that figure had almost doubled - to 38%. The more voters who do not identify strongly with one of the two major parties, the more voters are likely to vote 'split-ticket' - that is, voting for Democrat and Republican candidates for different offices at the same election. In 1952, only 13% of voters were split-ticket voters; by 1972, that figure had risen to 30%.


One slight complication: it is possible for party control of Congress to be divided, with the Democrats controlling one house and the Republicans the other. This is the situation following the 2010 mid-term elections: a Democrat president with a Democrat Senate but a Republican House - what we might call a divided Congress.


Table 1 Divided government (in red), 1969-2012
YearsPresidency Senate-HouseYearsPresidency Senate-House

† January–June 2001: R-R; June 2001–December 2002: Dem-R




When has divided government occurred?

In the 44 years between January 1969 and January 2013 there will have been 22 years of divided government, 121/2 years of one-party (united) government, and 91/2 years when control of Congress was divided (Table 1). It is also highly likely that we shall re-enter the era of divided government following the 2012 elections. So in modern-day US politics it is clear that divided government is the norm. Is this bad news or good news? Is divided government a weakness or a strength of the US political system?


What are the weaknesses of divided government?

Divided government - so the conventional wisdom goes - brings gridlock and partisan bickering:

  • Republican president Richard Nixon was forced to resign by a Democrat Congress.

  • Nixon's Republican successor Gerald Ford lasted only 21/2 years and is remembered most for his 48 vetoes and the 12 that Congress overrode.

  • When Republican president Ronald Reagan was faced with divided government in his last 2 years, he had a well-qualified Supreme Court nominee - Robert Bork - rejected by the Senate and faced an overly-zealous congressional investigation of the Iran-Contra affair.

And if we needed further examples of the weakness of divided government, then the Clinton years provided some choice examples: the partial federal government shut-down of 1995-96; the impeachment and trial of the president in 1998-99.

A further point to keep in mind is that divided government may be even more problematic in an era of increased partisanship. Three decades ago, Republican president Ronald Reagan (president, 1981-89) could attract significant support for his policies from the large number of conservative Democrats in Congress. Although Reagan's Republicans never 'controlled' the House in terms of numbers, Reagan could often build a winning coalition of Republicans plus conservative Democrats to give him effective political control of the House. Divided government was still workable, but no longer. With the collapse of the Solid South, the Democratic Party has become a far more ideologically cohesive liberal party with far fewer Democrats prepared to support a Republican president's policies. And the Republican Party has become a far more ideologically cohesive conservative party with fewer 'moderate' Republicans prepared to support a Democrat president's policies. All this makes divided government much more problematic.


What are the strengths of divided government?


So what are the strengths of divided government? First, it provides an incentive to the 'out party' (the party that does not control the White House) to help the 'in party' succeed. When one party controls both branches, the out party members have no incentive at all to get anything done. This is what we saw during the first 2 years of the Obama presidency (2009-10) when the Democrats had control of the White House and both houses of Congress. The Republicans just walked away. When healthcare reform passed in the House (219-212), all 178 Republicans voted 'no'; when it passed in the Senate (60-39), all 39 Republicans present voted 'no'. Only the Democrats 'owned' healthcare reform.


Divided government brings a second strength. Because both parties need to agree to pass legislation, it has to be written in such a way as to appeal to the middle ground: the centre-right of the Democratic Party, the centre-left of the Republican Party, and that one-third of the electorate who call themselves independents. That was the strength of Reagan's tax reform passed in 1986, and of Clinton's welfare reform passed in 1996. They were both the products of divided government and they were both reforms that appealed to 'middle America' rather than just Red or Blue America.


Not only may divided government lead to better legislation but it may also lead to more effective oversight of the executive branch. The danger during periods of united government is that Congress acts more like a lapdog than a watchdog when playing its oversight role. The difference between congressional oversight under united and divided government was clearly on display when George W. Bush's Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress after the 2006 mid-term elections. Between January 2003 and December 2006, the Republican majority in Congress pretty much gave the president a free ride. But once the Democrats took control of Congress in January 2007, everything changed. 'The watchdog growls' headlined an article in the National Journal (March 2007). The new House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, John Dingell, immediately began an investigation of the way the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was conducting studies of new drugs for the US pharmaceutical market:


"I promise those in charge of HHS and any other department that chooses to deny this committee the information and access to bring proper and needed oversight, as is our responsibility, that they will not succeed. There is an easy way to be investigated and there is a hard way, and I can assure all and sundry, the hard way is not the better way."


Dingell's committee then proceeded to send a letter to a pharmaceutical executive demanding:


"the names and contact information for all employees involved in a drug study; all e-mails relating to the study over a 28-month period within the company, to other companies, and to the Food and Drug Administration; and all documents related to meetings with FDA officials."



So maybe the conventional wisdom that divided government is a weakness of the US political system is in need of re-examination. It incentivises cooperation and compromise between the parties; it may produce legislation which is framed to appeal to middle and moderate Americans rather than the vocal extremes; and it may lead to more effective oversight of the executive branch. As James Ceasar and Andrew Busch commented over a decade ago (Losing to Win: The 1996 elections and American Politics):


"The concept of divided government has begun to go from negative to positive. After these elections, there was none of the usual chorus of laments in the press against divided government. President Clinton, who campaigned in 1992 on the pledge to 'end gridlock', asked voters in 1996 to allow him to be the agent of gridlock, checking the Republicans in Congress. For their part, Republicans came to conclude that their bid for the presidency was doomed and began arguing that a Republican Congress was necessary to prevent Bill Clinton from having a 'blank check'."


Add 16 years to the dates, and change 'Clinton' to 'Obama', and you may yet have a fairly accurate description of the 2012 elections. But do voters really choose divided government because they like both parties or because they fear the excesses of both of them?