An Anatomy of Divided Party Governments


Divided party government comes about when one party controls the White House and the other controls either or both chambers of Congress. In recent decades it’s been more the norm than the exception (Frank, 2010). Divided government occurs when different parties control the House and Senate or when the majority in Congress is not from the President's party. These divisions differentiate the American government from parliamentary systems such as Great Britain's, where the prime minister always heads the majority party. There, if the prime minister's party loses its majority, or loses a “vote of confidence,” the country must hold new elections. Under the U.S. Constitution, the President remains in office for a set term, even if his party loses control of 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, but since the 1970s, it has become increasingly common, mainly in part because of the Watergate scandal, which popularized the idea that a divided government is good for the country. Some conservative and libertarian groups see divided government as beneficial, since it may encourage more policing of those in power by the opposition, as well as limiting spending and the expansion of undesirable laws. (

In parliamentary systems such as the United Kingdom, the executive relies on Parliamentary support for its existence. In the United States, however, the constitution is designed to create conflict between the executive and legislative branches of government. However, despite the perceived problems of divided government, the President and Congress are often able, out of necessity, to establish an effective working relationship (

Divided party Government in President Eisenhower’s reign

When the 84th Congress convened on January, 5, 1953, President Eisenhower was to face the difficult task of conducting the business of government with the executive and legislative branches under divided political control. Midway through his administration, the President found himself confronted with a Senate and House of Representatives led by the opposition party, and with serious rifts in the ranks of his own party. Moreover, In the remaining two years of his first term, he had to contend with burdensome foreign and domestic problems in a political atmosphere pervaded by an approaching presidential election contest of 1956 (Stone, 1954).

Conley (2002) however, observed that divided government seemed to relatively matter less to Dwight Eisenhower, who got along relatively well with Democrats during six years of split-party control of the White House and Capitol Hill from 1955-60. Nine other Presidents since World war II have had to deal with a Congresses in which the political opposition controlled at least one house; seven of them had such opposition in both houses. Although their experiences varied widely, they all encountered formidable difficulties.

Divided Party Government in Modern Day Governments

A defining characteristic of American politics in the post war era is the dominance of divided partisan control of American political institutions. Congress and the presidency have been controlled, in some combination, by different political parties for forty two of the last seventy two years. And, in the last thirty years, the presidency, the House and the Senate have been controlled by the same party for only five years.

On May 21, 2001, just four months into the presidency of George W. Bush, maverick

Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont made a shocking announcement that rocked the Washington establishment: He was leaving the Republican Party. According to Jeffords the leadership of the

Grand Old Party (GOP) had increasingly sidelined moderates, and negotiations over the president’s budget pushed him over the edge. With the Senate evenly split 50-50 after the 2000 elections, Jeffords’ decision to become an Independent and throw his support to the Democrats robbed Republicans of organizational control of the upper chamber. The consequences for

George W. Bush’s agenda were immediate and far-reaching. Changes in key committee chairmanships, including Finance, Education, and Judiciary, presaged turbulent relations between the White House and the Democratic Senate. Indeed, George W. Bush made stalled court appointments and differences with Senate Democrats over the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security was the centerpieces in his indefatigable, and ultimately successful, mid-term campaign for Republicans to regain control of the Senate in 2002. Bush seemingly realized what some scholars have argued for decades: Party control of Congress is indispensable for the legislative presidency (Conley, 2002).

Bill Clinton waged protracted veto battles with Republican majorities for six of his eight years in office, endured a government shutdown, and faced the ultimate sanction, impeachment. In his second term Richard Nixon frequently found himself at odds with congressional spending, used impoundment in an attempt to halt profligacy, and was finally chased from office by Watergate and a resurgent Democratic majority. And Republicans Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, who faced opposition Congresses for the duration of their presidencies, made extensive use of the veto power to halt Democratic activism in Congress. From this vantage point, “divided government”- when an opposition majority controls one or both chambers on Capitol Hill - can place the president’s agenda at a sharp disadvantage and is a recipe for gridlock and institutional combat (Conley,2002).

The magnitude of president Obamas election victory in 2008 and the accompanying gains in congress was to give Obama much more influence than the past few administrators had wielded when assuming office. Other than Lyndon Johnstone’s 1964 landslide, every president since the war has either confronted divided government or internal party strife. The Obamas administration therefore looked poised to vigorously press its agenda (Dupuis and Boeckelman, 2009).

Divided Government and the concept of Political Power

One of the fundamental concepts of political science is power. Bernavides and Daly (1989) defined political power as the capacity to impose ones will/ interests against others will/ interests that are often competing or at conflict. Here two schools of thought emerge over how political power is affected by either a unified or a divided government. One school advocates for divided government on the premise that divided government ensures that the principal of checks and balances is observed. This view is in consonance with the principle of separation of powers. Barack (2006) defined the principle of separation of powers to refer to the practice whereby each of the three arms of government acts independently, lawfully and within its jurisdiction.

 Here both executive and legislative excesses are checked by the other. The other view argues that a divided government arrangement is a bottleneck for channeling political power to wards effectively implementation of an administrations agenda and policies.

Single-party control facilitates positive presidential engagement of Congress and furnishes more opportunities for credit-claiming. Presidents prevail more often on congressional votes on which they express a position, and agenda synergy with Congress is consistently stronger. They are sometimes able to steer the congressional agenda. At other times, their role has been to cultivate support for continuing party objectives in Congress. In the last several decades assertive opposition majorities have set more of the policy agenda and have forced presidents to preempt Congress or take a more reactive role in the legislative game. Heightened partisanship and organizational reforms in Congress have hampered presidents’ efforts to construct cross-party coalitions. These factors have plummeted presidents’ legislative success rates and complicated agenda control. But they have also provided contemporary presidents with a powerful, if different, form of leverage over Congress. In this era of party unity and narrow seat margins on Capitol Hill, presidents have turned increasingly to vetoes and veto threats to gain influence over lawmaking. Opposition majorities in Congress have little. hope of finding two-thirds majorities capable of overriding chief executives’ objections, enhancing the potency of even a mere veto threat by the president to win legislative compromise (Conley, 2002).

Divided Government and Policy making

Two views emerge regarding divided government and public policy making. The first view is pro divided government on account of moderate policies. Alesina and Rosenthal (1995) argued that voters take advantage of the checks and balances implicit in the legislature-executive interaction to bring about policy moderation. They observed that even though the American electorate faces two polarized parties in the elections, they can achieve “middle of the road” policies through a divided government. The electorate can moderate a president from one party by voting a congress from the opposing party. If that is not achieved in an election, the situation can be neutralized during mid-term elections or subsequent elections.

The other view is that divided governments lead to deadlock and inaction in policy formulation. Alt and Lowry (2000) and Poterba (1992) we for instance able to demonstrate that divided state government reduces the speed of adjustment to fiscal shocks.

Divided Government and Legislation

Opinion has been widely divided over whether there is more legislative productivity during unified or divided governments. When considering the form of the “legislative production function”, divided government is often assumed to be a cause of government “gridlock” (Rogers, 2005). Prince (2000) indicated that parties are more likely to enact legislation when they have unified control of the government. According to him, divided government created obstacles to lawmakers thus making legislation more difficult to enact. Edwards et al (1997) found that important bills are more likely to fail during periods of divided government. Coleman (1999) analyzed party responsiveness under unified and divided government and concluded that unified .government is significantly more productive than divided government. Nonetheless, much of the scholarly evidence to date suggests that it actually has little impact on the production of legislation (Brady &Volden, 1998; Fiorina, 1996; Krehbiel, 1998; Mayhew, 1991; Kelley, 1993). Mayhew (1991) was able to show that control of the presidency and Congress does no impact on the making of significant laws with lasting impacts on public policy.  Additionally, he observed that unified government were a rarity and had not necessarily resulted to presidential legislative leadership. Kelly (1993) was also able to demonstrate that divided government does have a significant negative impact on the emergence of innovative policy.

Divided Government and Democracy

The most common form of government in the world today is a democracy. Democracy is a system whereby people control political power. The word democracy comes from two Greek words, demos, or “people,” and cracy, or “rule of.” In the United States, many assume democracy to mean “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln stated in his Gettysburg address. This concept means that the ultimate authority over governmental policies and decision rests with the people (Lansford, 2007). In terms of democracy, divided government on the one hand would be more appealing in the context of both sides of the divide being reasonably represented in government policy. On the other hand, a democratically elected president is elected on certain platforms. The vote therefore can be interpreted to give the president mandate to implement their policies. A divided government may dilute that mandate and would thus appear to handicap the administrations mandate.


Divided government has both its positives and negatives: With regard to power, on the one hand, Power sharing creates incentives to compromise. With both parties responsible for governing, they each have a stake in getting things done. But on the other hand, the most effective way of get things done in Washington may be to have all the levels of power at your disposal to push through legislation and policy. Regarding policy making and legislation: on one hand, since legislation needs support from both parties to pass, policy is pushed to the center where pragmatic solutions to problems are found. Whereas on the other, bipartisan support is a prescription for halfway measures and may dilute the agenda of an administration. On the question of ideology: on one hand, divided government forces the administration to govern from the center, which is the only way to produce sustainable bipartisanship. On the other, divided government deepens partisan rancor and creates legislative and policy bottlenecks. In the final analysis whether unified or divided, the government of the day should play to the strengths of the prevailing situation for the good of this great nation.

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