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Now that CNN has projected Republicans will win the House of Representatives, it’s time to consider a Washington where both parties have some control.
Despite underperforming on Election Day, the GOP gains will have a major impact on what’s accomplished in the coming two years.
Additional climate change policy? Don’t count on it. National abortion legislation? Not a chance. Voting rights? Not likely.
Plus, Republicans have indicated they will use any leverage they can find – including the debt ceiling – to force spending cuts.
While you might immediately think this is all a recipe for a stalemate in Washington, I was surprised to read the argument, backed up by research, that the US government actually overperforms during periods of divided government.
Those periods are coming more and more frequently, by the way. While there used to be relatively long periods of a decade or more during which one party controlled all of Washington, recent presidents have lost control of the House.
Barack Obama, Donald Trump and George W. Bush each saw their party lose the House. President Joe Biden will join that club.
The two Republicans in the ’80s and ‘90s – Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush – both had productive presidencies and never enjoyed a sympathetic congressional majority. The last president to enjoy unified government throughout his presidency was Democrat Jimmy Carter, and voters did not look very kindly on him in the final analysis.
What’s below are excerpts from separate phone conversations conducted before the midterm election with Frances Lee and James Curry, authors of the 2020 book, “The Limits of Party: Congress and Lawmaking in a Polarized Era.” Lee is a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, and Curry is a political science professor at the University of Utah. What led me to them was their 2020 argument that divided government overperforms and unified government underperforms expectations.
What should Americans know about divided government?
LEE: It’s the normal state of affairs in our politics in the modern era. Since 1980, something like two-thirds of the time we’ve had a divided government.
And yet you think about all the things that government has undertaken in the years since the Second World War. The role and scope of the US government is so much greater now than it was then. And a lot of that happened in divided government. Most of that has been under divided government time. …
Unified government usually results in disappointment for the party in power, which is just exactly what we’ve seen here in (this) Congress. Democrats were unable to deliver on their bold agenda, and that’s not different than what Republicans faced when they had unified government and couldn’t pass repeal and replace of Obamacare.
Now hold on. Republicans passed a massive tax cut bill with unified government. Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, which included spending to address climate change. Those are the major accomplishments of recent years, no?
CURRY: I think we’re making a mistake when we say that those are the three biggest things that have happened. For instance, earlier you talked about the American Rescue Plan (another Covid relief bill passed with only Democratic support) – it is not as significant as the CARES Act, which was the first major Covid relief legislation passed by Congress. It passed in March of 2020, and it passed on an overwhelming bipartisan basis.
A lot of what was included in the American Rescue Plan were things that were initially set out under the CARES Act. Arguably the CARES Act was the single most important legislative accomplishment that we’ve had in this country in several decades.
And there are other examples too … things like criminal justice reform that was passed with bipartisan support in 2018, and many others things that are just as significant from a public policy standpoint, including also the bipartisan infrastructure bill that Congress passed last year.
They don’t have as much political significance, foremost because they were passed on a single-party basis. But I don’t think you can make the case that they’re necessarily more significant in terms of policy consequences for the country.
(In a follow-up email, Curry said that Congress often flies its bipartisanship accomplishments under the radar as part of larger bills, which means they don’t get as much attention. He pointed to big-ticket items that passed quietly in 2019 as part of larger spending bills, including raising the age to buy tobacco to 21, pushing through the first major pay raise for federal employees in years and repealing unpopular Obamacare taxes. He has similar examples for each recent year. But if they are not contentious, they get less attention, he said.)
Your argument is counter to the current narrative of American politics – that parties enact more on their own. Is that a media problem? A partisanship problem?
LEE: I’m still blown away by how much was done on Covid. Basically the United States government spent 75% more in 2020 than it spent in 2019. All that was Covid.
You’re talking about New Deal levels of spending and yet people just didn’t even seem to notice it because it was done on a bipartisan basis. We basically had a universal basic income in response to Covid and all the small business aid – it’s just extraordinary – and yet, it just seemed to pass people by as though nothing important occurred.
I don’t think it’s just a media story. The media wrote stories about the Covid aid bills, but it just didn’t capture people’s attention.
And I think that’s because it didn’t cut in favor of or against either party. When you don’t have a story that drives a partisan narrative, most people are just not that interested in it. Most people that pay attention to politics are not that interested in it. It lacks a rooting interest.
What about the big things that need action? Immigration reform has eluded Congress for decades and climate change is an existential threat. How can divided government be preferable if Congress can’t come together to address these problems?
CURRY: I’m not saying divided government is preferable, which I think is important. I’m just saying it doesn’t make that big a difference on a lot of these issues.
So we’ve seen that list of issues you just mentioned – climate change, immigration, etc. These are issues that Congress has equally struggled to take big, bold action on under divided or unified government.
On climate change, for instance, Democrats want to do big, bold things, but they aren’t able to go as far as they want to, because not only are there disagreements between the parties on how to address climate change, there are disagreements among Democrats about the best way to address climate and environmental legislation.
On immigration, you have clear divisions across party lines, but also divisions within each party.
LEE: Congress can pass legislation spending money or cutting taxes. The problem is it’s difficult to do things that create backlash. It’s hard to do serious climate legislation without being prepared to accept a backlash.
Isn’t this just a structural problem then? If there was no requirement for a filibuster supermajority, couldn’t a simple majority of lawmakers be more effective?
LEE: On the two examples that you just put forward – on immigration and climate – the filibuster has not been the obstacle to recent efforts.
In immigration reform that Republicans attempted to do (under Trump), they couldn’t get majorities in either the House or Senate. Democrats were way short of a Senate majority when they tried to do climate legislation under Obama. They barely got out of the House.
(Curry and Lee’s research shows the filibuster is not the primary culprit standing in the way of four out of five of the priorities that parties have failed to enact since 1985.)
CURRY: We found a more common reason why the parties fail on the things that can be accomplished is because they are unable to unify internally about what to do. The filibuster matters, but it is far from the most significant thing.
But certainly the legislation that passes under divided government is different than what would have passed under a unified government. The parties must compromise more. Whether the government is unified or divided matters, right?
CURRY: It makes a difference certainly for precisely what is in these final policy bills. It certainly makes a difference for the politics of the moment. It really makes a difference for each side of the aisle in terms of being able to say, we got this much done or that much done that matches my hopes and dreams as a Democrat or a Republican.
But it’s just sort of an overstated story that unified government means big, bold things happen and divided government means they don’t.
Wouldn’t Washington work better if one party was more easily able to deliver on its goals when voters gave it power?
CURRY: Whether it would be better if we had a situation like you have in more parliamentary-style governments where a party takes control, they pass what they will and stand to voters, I think it’s just in the eye of the beholder.
On one hand, potentially, yes, because it’s very clear and clean from a party responsibility or electoral responsibility standpoint, where parties pass things and then voters can hold them accountable or not. On the other hand, then you would see more wild swings in policy from election to election.
Does the growing number of swings in power in Congress mean American voters consciously prefer divided government?
CURRY: I don’t think that Americans necessarily have a preference for divided government. That’s something that people sometimes say. It sounds nice.
But the reality is that roughly since the 1980s and early 1990s, it’s been the case that electoral margins are really tight – you have relatively even numbers of Americans that prefer Democrats and Republicans. And so from election to election, based on turnout and swings back and forth, you get this constant back and forth of our electoral politics where one party is in control for two to four years and then the other party is in control.
That’s really important because it has massive implications for our politics. If you have a political system and political dynamic like we have today, where each party thinks they can constantly win back control or lose control of the House, the Senate and the presidency, it ups the stakes for every single decision that’s going to be made.
Everything is considered through a lens of how will this affect our partisan fortunes in the next election, and that makes things just naturally more contentious.
Can we agree that ours is not a very effective way to govern?
CURRY: It is certainly the case that Congress does not pass every single thing that every person wants it to. But I don’t think that is ever true of any government. Nor do I think that’s a reasonable bar to set a government against.
The reality is Congress does a lot of stuff and does a lot more than people give it credit for, but it also fails to take action on a lot of policies. I think that’s just politics. That’s just government. It’s not just an American problem, and it’s not just a facet of our specific political system.