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What is a Divided Government?

A divided government occurs when different political parties control the executive branch and at least one chamber of the legislature. This can lead to legislative gridlock but also encourages compromise. It reflects a balance of power and diverse public opinion. How does this impact policy-making and the everyday lives of citizens? Join us as we explore the intricate dance of bipartisan governance.
Dale Marshall
Dale Marshall

A divided government, in the United States or any similarly structured constitutional republic, is one in which the executive authority is vested in a member of a party not in control of the legislative branch. For example, in the 1990s, the Democratic Party, of which President Bill Clinton was the head, held control of the Congress for only the first two years of Clinton's two terms office, resulting in a divided government for six of the eight years of his presidency.

The United States government is structured on the principal of separation of powers, that is, the legislative authority is held by one body &emdash; the Congress &emdash; and the executive authority, or the power to enact, carry out and enforce the laws enacted by the legislature, is held by the executive branch, which is headed by the president, who is both the head of government and the head of state. Laws passed by the Congress are enacted into law when signed by the president, or, upon his disapproval, upon a 2/3 vote of each House of the Congress, called an “override” of the president's veto. The third branch of the government, the judiciary, is composed of the courts, among whose jobs is the responsibility to interpret the laws and determine their consistency with the Constitution. The judiciary is considered to be impartial and disinterested – that is, it is not motivated by partisan issues, at least partially because federal judges are not elected, but appointed for long terms, often for life.

The House and Senate convene in the U.S. Capital building.
The House and Senate convene in the U.S. Capital building.

When one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress, the government is “unified” and it's theoretically easy to pass and enact legislation because of the shared goals held by members of the same party. When the opposing party gains control of even one House of Congress, either the Senate or the House of Representatives, it gains the power to bring government to a standstill by virtue of its ability simply to oppose whatever the president's party proposes.

Divided government refers to when one party controls the White House and the other the Congress.
Divided government refers to when one party controls the White House and the other the Congress.

Some people draw the conclusion that the framers of the American Constitution unwittingly established a governmental structure that would become mired in gridlock and stagnation as the composition of the House and Senate shifted every two years. Others cite the antipathy of the framers toward a strong central government, which helps explain why they would construct a government that requires compromise between parties in order to accomplish anything. In order to gain the opposition's support for any legislation, the president's party must negotiate with the opposition, and the opposition will never agree to any measure that's too egregious.

Many feel the U.S. government was divided under the presidential terms of Bill Clinton.
Many feel the U.S. government was divided under the presidential terms of Bill Clinton.

It's been suggested that divided government is undesirable, and that a unified government is preferable. An analysis of American government in the 20th century shows that for the first 55 years of the century, the government was divided for only eight of those years. Additional analysis shows that some of the most successful administrations in the 20th century, such as those of presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, were part of divided governments, and some unified governments, such as the Democratic dominance in the second half of the 1930s and the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, led to what many consider to have been extreme governmental excess. Examples of this include the Democratic initiatives of the 1930s that were subsequently declared unconstitutional and many of President Johnson's “Great Society” bills that still cause controversy.

Ronald Reagan, president of the U.S. from 1981 to 1989, was said to serve during a divided government.
Ronald Reagan, president of the U.S. from 1981 to 1989, was said to serve during a divided government.

In addition, one of the most dramatic political scandals in American history, the Watergate scandal, occurred during a divided government, and many have suggested that if President Richard Nixon's Republican party had controlled the Congress during that time, the investigations and revelations that led to the president's resignation in the face of inevitable impeachment might never have taken place. Proponents of a divided government suggest that party loyalty and party “discipline” might encourage members of Congress to overlook in a president of their own party behavior that they wouldn't countenance in a president from the opposing party.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a divided government?

Some observers believe that if Congress during the Nixon Administration were controlled by Republicans, Nixon might not have had to face impeachment.
Some observers believe that if Congress during the Nixon Administration were controlled by Republicans, Nixon might not have had to face impeachment.

A divided government occurs when different political parties control different branches of the government, typically in the context of the United States, where one party may hold the presidency while another has the majority in one or both houses of Congress. This division can lead to gridlock, where legislative action is stalled due to partisan disagreements, but it can also encourage compromise and bipartisanship.

How common is a divided government in the United States?

Divided government is relatively common in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, since 1969, there have been 28 years of divided government at the federal level. This reflects the frequent shifts in political power and the checks and balances inherent in the U.S. political system, designed to prevent any one party from having unchecked authority.

What are the potential advantages of a divided government?

One advantage of a divided government is that it can lead to more balanced and moderate policy outcomes, as legislation typically requires compromise between parties. It can also act as a check on power, preventing any one party from implementing extreme policies without opposition. Additionally, it encourages greater scrutiny of legislation and executive actions, which can lead to more thoughtful governance.

What are the challenges of a divided government?

The primary challenge of a divided government is legislative gridlock, where partisan divisions prevent the passage of significant legislation. This can lead to a lack of progress on important issues and frustration among the electorate. Furthermore, it can result in a reliance on executive actions, which are not as robust or comprehensive as laws passed by Congress, and can easily be reversed by subsequent administrations.

Can a divided government affect the appointment of federal judges?

Yes, a divided government can significantly impact the appointment of federal judges, including Supreme Court justices. When the president's party does not control the Senate, which confirms judicial appointments, it can lead to delays or rejections of the president's nominees. This can result in prolonged vacancies on federal courts, affecting the judiciary's ability to address its caseload and potentially altering the ideological balance of the courts.

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Discussion Comments

anon281681

Thank you for the definition. It saved me a lot of time.

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    • The House and Senate convene in the U.S. Capital building.
      By: Al Teich
      The House and Senate convene in the U.S. Capital building.
    • Divided government refers to when one party controls the White House and the other the Congress.
      By: camrocker
      Divided government refers to when one party controls the White House and the other the Congress.
    • Many feel the U.S. government was divided under the presidential terms of Bill Clinton.
      Many feel the U.S. government was divided under the presidential terms of Bill Clinton.
    • Ronald Reagan, president of the U.S. from 1981 to 1989, was said to serve during a divided government.
      Ronald Reagan, president of the U.S. from 1981 to 1989, was said to serve during a divided government.
    • Some observers believe that if Congress during the Nixon Administration were controlled by Republicans, Nixon might not have had to face impeachment.
      Some observers believe that if Congress during the Nixon Administration were controlled by Republicans, Nixon might not have had to face impeachment.