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Debate: Divided government vs. one-party rule

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Is a divided US government beneficial?



In the United States, divided government describes a situation in which one party controls the White House and another party controls one or both houses of the United States Congress. Divided government is suggested by some to be an undesirable product of the separation of powers in the United States' political system. Earlier in the 20th century, divided government was rare. In recent years, however, it has become common.

Unified and Divided Party Control of Government in the United States. D and R denotes for the Democratic Party (United States) and Republican party (United States) respectively.

See Wikipedia: "Divided government" for more background.

Checks: Does divided government provide important checks and balances?


James Madison wrote in Federalist paper 51, and later added - "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."
Any case where government has been able to 'control itself' would be the exception. Most examples of one-party rule are cautionary tales of excess as the minority party is shut up and shut down. Monopolies are seldom in the public interest, and political monopolies are no exception."
  • Divided government avoids unstable, reactionary swings of power. "Here's my dream ticket: Why divided government's good for America". Daily News. 2 Nov. 2008 - "Indeed, much of Barack Obama's argument for election is based on ending not just George Bush's administration, but on overturning Republican philosophy on everything from Iraq to regulating markets to tax policy. Most of those issues emerged during Bush's first six years, when the GOP also held Congress.
Republicans deserve a thrashing, but the pendulum would be swinging too far in the opposite direction if GOP misrule yielded to Democratic monopoly. It would satisfy partisan competitiveness and a thirst for revenge among angry activists, but would not benefit the nation."
Political parties are important expressions of "auxiliary precautions," especially when the minority has a share of governmental authority with which to wage dissent. For example, if Obama wins the White House, a Republican Senate would at least have advise and consent power on key nominations as well as a say in legislation.
Parliamentary rules are a lesser defense against one-party abuse. If Democrats win the Senate with 60 seats, a real possibility, they would be able to silence GOP voices on virtually any issue."


  • Presidents can effectively control members of their own Party Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, said in October of 2008, "If there were huge majorities in the House and the Senate and John McCain were president, it is more likely that Congress would flex their muscle and do whatever they wanted to do regardless of John McCain — because they wouldn’t need John McCain’s approval. On the other hand, if you have Barack Obama in the White House, he believes in bipartisan cooperation. He wants to change this ‘I control the mountain and therefore I will move the mountain mentality’ in Washington."[1]
  • Executive foreign policy is hardly constrained in a divided government. "The Case That Divided Government is Irrelevant". 2008 Central. 8 Jul. 2008 - "in terms of foriegn policy, the development the past 50 years has strongly favored the President over Congress. Indeed, Bush has been able to do almost whatever he wanted in foreign policy, even after the Democrats took back Congress in 2006. Bill Clinton initiated the Kosovo campaign in the middle of being impeached."
  • Compromise is still necessary under one-party rule. "The Case That Divided Government is Irrelevant". 2008 Central. 8 Jul. 2008 - "This is also true when the same party is in control of Congress and the White House. I’ll take the Farm Bill and raise him every other bill I’ve mentioned: Tax Cuts, Energy Bill, Katrina Bills, No Child Left Behind, Medicare, etc. Even the poorly organized Democrats were able to negotiate somewhat with those. Moreover, even with undivided government, when negotiation failed, bills did not pass (Social Security)."
  • The Supreme Court still checks one-party rule. "The hypocrisy of the 'One-Party Rule' Gambit". Informed Comment. 28 Oct. 2008 - "Second, the Democrats do not have the supreme court, and there is no early prospect of a firm Democratic majority on it. The conservatives on it are still fairly young and energetic. Thomas and Scalia are very far right, and Alito and Roberts only a little less so. Kennedy is a swing vote but not exactly a liberal. The likely retirements will mostly come from the ranks of liberals, so that Obama and a Democratic congress will only be able to maintain a status quo. It is true that they can stop a far-right putsch on the Court, but that is hardly one party rule."
  • Minority Party always argues for divided government. Liz Sidoti. "McCain's Warning: Perils Of One-Party Rule". Huffington Post. 26 Oct. 2008 - "the Republicans did have one-party rule in 2000-2006 and really did have all three branches of government under their control. Can anyone think of any major Republican leader in that period who argued that it was a bad thing and who urged voters to cast ballots for Democrats in order to restore some checks and balances?"

Governance: Does divided government offer better governance?


  • One-party rule makes military spending and war more likely William A. Niskanen. "A Case for Divided Government". CATO. 7 May 2003 - "Point Three. The prospect of a major war is usually higher with a united government, and the current war makes that clear.[..]Each of the four major American wars in the 20th century, for example, was initiated by a Democratic president with the approval of a Congress controlled by Democrats. The war in Iraq, initiated by a Republican president with the support of a Republican Congress, is consistent with this pattern and has already proved to be the only use of U.S. military force lasting more than a few days that was initiated by a Republican president in over a century."
  • One-party rule increases government intrusions on civil liberties. Lisa Snell. "Divided We Stand". Reason Online. February 2007 - "Every American concerned about excessive government intrusion into our lives should greet with optimism the return to a system of partisan checks and balances[...]The last four years have witnessed an unprecedented level of government interference in individual lives. While National Security Agency wiretapping and detainee rights have attracted much attention, examples of abuse of power in other arenas abound, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration’s raids on medical marijuana patients."
  • Divided government helps produce lasting reforms. William A. Niskanen. "A Case for Divided Government". CATO. 7 May 2003 - "Point Two. The probability that a major reform will last is usually higher with a divided government because the necessity of bipartisan support is more likely to protect the reform against a subsequent change in the majority party.
The Reagan tax laws of 1981 and 1986, for example, were both approved by a House of Representatives controlled by the Democrats and have largely survived. The major potential reforms of agriculture, telecommunications, and welfare in 1996 were approved by Clinton and a Republican Congress, although only the welfare reform has survived subsequent legislative and regulatory changes. The primary exception to this pattern, of course, is the Great Society. My judgment, however, is that the prospect for a major reform of the federal tax code, Medicare, or Social Security will be dependent on more bipartisan support than now seems likely in a united Republican government."


  • The most successful US presidencies enjoyed one-party rule. "Down with Divided Government". The New Republic. 27 Oct. 2008 - "Let’s first look at those past administrations that enjoyed singular success. Most lists would include George Washington’s two terms, Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, Theodore Roosevelt’s (just about) two terms, and Franklin Roosevelt’s four terms. A longer list not based on consensus might include Thomas Jefferson’s first term, Andrew Jackson’s two terms, Woodrow Wilson’s first term, Harry Truman’s two terms, and Ronald Reagan’s two terms.
Of the consensus choices, all enjoyed a united government (in George Washington’s days, there were not really parties). Of the more controversial choices, Truman suffered through divided government for only two of seven plus years. Reagan is somewhat harder case. In his first six years, he enjoyed what was functionally a united government, because he could count on a majority of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats; only in his last two years did he have to deal with a Congress controlled by the opposition--and those, of course, were the years of the Iran-Contra scandal, where, on domestic policy, his administration ground to a halt."
  • The worst US presidencies involved divided government "Down with Divided Government". The New Republic. 27 Oct. 2008 - Now let’s look at the more disastrous moments in the history of American administrations--where charges of impeachment were brought, and recriminations paralyzed the government. That would have to include the administrations of Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton--all instances of divided government. I’d also add the last two years of Wilson’s second term when divided government (and Wilson’s illness) set America on the track of irresponsibility in foreign and domestic policy. So if you look at America’s moments of glory and ignominy, the conclusion is inescapable: divided government is a curse, not a blessing, and should be avoided, if at all possible.
If you really long for change, divided government is the last thing you should want. In a parliamentary system, like the one in Britain, divided government is impossible. You vote for the party, not the person. Whichever party wins the most seats or can cobble together a majority through alliances with other parties gets to form a government and choose a prime minister. The winning party is generally able to enact its agenda. More important, that party can be held accountable if it does not enact its agenda or if it does and the policies fail."
  • Pursuing divided government is premised on a fear of politics. Michael Kinsley. "McCain's Last Mistake. Undivided government won't be as bad as he warned it would be." Slate. 4 Nov. 2008 - "People who want divided government are afraid of politics. They imagine that under divided government, the wise elders of both parties would sit around a table and "rise above politics" with pragmatic solutions for everything. But it doesn't work that way, and it shouldn't. Our disagreements are generally about trade-offs—money for some new government benefit, the blood of our young for some foreign-policy goal, freedom for protection from terrorists, bureaucracy for the safety of drugs or cars or financial derivatives. All of these trade-offs could be settled by letting some board of elders split the difference. But then it wouldn't be much of a democracy, would it?"

Voters: Do voters seek divided government?



  • Voters do not actually choose divided government. Michael Kinsley. "McCain's Last Mistake. Undivided government won't be as bad as he warned it would be." Slate. 4 Nov. 2008 - "almost no one actually chooses divided government. Almost everyone who votes for Obama also votes Democratic for the Senate and the House. Ditto McCain and the Republicans. Divided government results when those totals are close, and just a few ticket-splitters can produce a divided result. McCain was not asking voters to split their tickets. He was urging Republicans tempted to vote for Obama not to split their tickets, for fear that undivided government would be the result."

Corruption: Does divided government help fighting corruption?


  • One-party rule leads to corruption. Michael Merritt. "The Case For Divided Government". PoliGazette. July 8th, 2008. - "So why is having unified government so bad? Well, for starters, it leads to all sorts of corruption. You only need to look at the Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay and Mark Foley scandals to see what can happen when politicians get too comfortable with their own power. … As well as scandals in Congress, scandals in the executive branch can also go unchecked with unified government. Just look at the U.S. Attorney scandal, treatment of enemy combatants, and others."


  • Political corruption exists in divided government too. "The Case That Divided Government is Irrelevant". 2008 Central. 8 Jul. 2008 - "Corruption is a worry not for divided government, but for parties that have any power whatsoever. As appealing as it would be if no party had power, that seems unrealistic. Moreover, it’s not just Republicans that have a monopoly on corruption; Democrats like William Jefferson are not squeaky clean, either.
As for Merritt’s second argument, Democrats have done absolutely nothing constructive regarding those scandals that they could not have done in the minority. Issuing unanswered subpoenas for instance. At best, you could argue that Democratic pressure made Alberto Gonzalez resign. But not even Republicans were not happy with him at the hearings."

Pro/con sources



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