A startling 80% of those who make New Year’s Resolutions admit to failing at them before the year is done. The trouble with New Year’s Resolutions, we say, is that there is too much “talk” and not enough action. It’s easy to declare our intent to change something, but putting in the hard work is much more difficult.
Sometimes we wish we could apply the same logic to politics. It often seems as if politicians are always talking about their promises, ideas, and suggestions without achieving any concrete action.
The conventional wisdom is that divided government makes lawmaking more difficult, if not impossible. On the surface, this seems to make sense. With two parties on opposite sides determined not to compromise their positions, it may seem like no progress is made. Gridlock is one of the most common criticisms of today’s Congress, as congressional approval levels hit an all-time low a few months ago.
I recently wrote a paper on the subject of divided government, confronting some of the common criticisms and examining some of the lesser-known benefits. To dispute the first criticism, legislative productivity, I relied on a landmark book on the subject, Divided We Govern, by David R. Mayhew. Mayhew, the Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale, revolutionized the existing research on divided government.
The results of Mayhew’s study challenge the conventional wisdom, showing that the number of important laws does not vary with divided or unified government. Mayhew found an average of 12.8 important laws passed in two-year segments of unified government and 11.7 important laws passed in two-year segments of divided government (p. 76). According to Mayhew, the small difference can be almost entirely explained by the combination of laws into “omnibus” bills in the 80s (times of divided government). Mayhew concludes that divided government does not play a factor in legislative productivity, instead suggesting that other factors may be at work.
One of the most intriguing benefits I discovered was the tendency toward more moderate policy-making. Mayhew concludes that about 85% of “important laws” passed under divided government held 2/3 majorities in both houses, a higher percentage than under unified government (p.120-122 & 222).
Keith Krehbiel, the Edward B. Rust Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, makes a convincing argument that divided government promotes compromise. In his landmark book, Pivotal Politics: A Theory of U.S. Lawmaking, Krehbiel puts forth a theory:
“Gridlock can be viewed as essentially the same thing as policy stability. (p. 5)”
It is worth noting that policy stability is not necessarily a good thing, particularly if prior policy was “bad policy.” Divided government may make prior governments’ problems harder to fix. However, William A. Niskanen of the Cato Institute also makes a good point:
“The rate of growth of real (inflation-adjusted) federal spending is usually lower with divided government.”
As this New Year approaches us, we should not be so quick to criticize our divided government without taking a moment to consider again.