A New Year’s Lawmaking

(Will Marlow)

(Will Marlow)

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.

Read the rest of my paper here if you’re interested (11 pages): The Case for Divided Government – Huizinga
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12 responses to “A New Year’s Lawmaking

  1. You are right on about feeling powerless, or as it is alternately put, “there ought to be a law” or the “do something disease.” Legislation is not the answer to everything.

    Thanks for sharing your original research, it’s nice to hear from lesser known academic sources now and again.

    • You’re welcome! One of my few real research papers – but I enjoyed it so much, I’m sure I’ll be writing many more.

      The interesting thing is, in researching divided government, to see how much the scholars refer to and build off each other. I enjoy it a lot.

      Thanks for the compliments!

  2. In election times, the job of congressmen is to justify their existence and their salaries. For this reason, everyone wants to pass something just to have a feather in the cap. But, the more laws we pass, the more broken government becomes. Recent history has born out that gridlock is the best thing that can happen to government.

    • What is the definition of ‘divided government’ with which you are working?
      As far as filibuster goes. I believe the facts will show that the filibuster has been used dramatically more often in the past two administrations than in previous history. It’s original intent/use has been lost.

    • I wonder if your last comment expresses the feeling of which ever party is not in control of theWhite house.

      • The same party is in control of everything. It’s called the “Kept” party. People may go to Washington as a Republican or Democrat, but most eventually are bought by the special interests.

  3. My comments will be of little worth compared to Stanford and Yale, but that’s never stopped me before 🙂
    Divided government has so many other specific time-bound variables associated with it that I wonder about the value of these comparisons. Divided governments in the past may not have had the use/abuse of the filibuster that we’ve had in recent years, for example, or Norquist tax pledges, etc. Also, I don’t think the real growth of federal spending has been lower either. I believe our current gridlock is the ‘not necessarily good’ brand. Not only is current policy bad policy, but this gridlock appears to suffer from a lack of bi-partisan trusting friendships among senators/representatives with real clout.

    • I think your comments are worthwhile! 🙂
      Obviously, I don’t intend to split my voting ticket because I believe divided government is preferable. However, I think the evidence above can (and does) indicate that our criticisms are often overblown. We have a tendency to over-dramatize today’s “distrust”.

      One trend to be considered is the increasing political polarization. Even if the evidence supports divided government until 2002, Mayhew (and other scholars) make arguments that divided government isn’t necessarily good if the parties are becoming more polarized. The question is, how do we measure this? It’s hard to find a perfect way to measure polarization. (Anecdotally, though we say parties are getting more extreme, take taxes for an example. We’re debating on top marginal rates of 35 vs 39.6%, rather than 94% in the 60s or 0% in the early 1900s. We have achieved some stability and “middle-ground”)

      As for the real federal spending question, the data is provided in the link. Regarding filibuster “abuse”, I have long believed that both sides only call it “abuse” when the other side is the one using it.

      • the first reply under ‘right wing…” is intended for ‘consider again’, not ‘right wing.’ Sorry.

        • No problem! I’ll reply to it here. Sorry about not clarifying my definition of “divided government” in the post. Basically, the definition I use is the one that Mayhew used. A “divided government” is one in which one party controls the presidency and the other controls one or both houses of Congress.

          Maybe I’ll write a post about the filibuster at some point – thanks for the tip!

      • Good points as well. Sometimes, the “fix” can make things worse. We have a tendency to hate feeling “powerless”- which explains why so many people hate leaving things to the market.

        The problem is, the things that need fixing now are the unintended consequences of our “fixes” years ago. What a dilemma.

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