Is Divided Government Better?

Jacob Sallum argues that the Republicans deserve to lose control of Congress because they’ve been so abysmal at controlling the size of the federal government. He cites AEI’s Kevin Hassett’s finding that the number of federal employees “shrank by 200,000 under Bill Clinton but have grown by 79,000 under George W. Bush.”

But that’s a pretty stupid metric unless one controls for events. Ceteris haven’t exactly been paribus over the last fourteen years. Clinton presided over a post-Cold War drawdown in the size of the Defense Department whereas Bush is presiding over a post-9/11 expansion in defense and homeland security spending. Indeed, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the decision to go to war in Iraq, the passage of No Child Left Behind, and various other decisions that have created this growth occurred during the period when the Democrats controlled the Senate.

Bush and the Republican Congress turned Clinton’s budget surpluses into deficits that peaked at $413 billion in fiscal year 2004. Federal spending as a share of GDP, which fell under Clinton to 18.5 percent, is again above 20 percent. Discretionary spending has increased faster under Bush than it did under Lyndon Johnson, no slouch in doling out taxpayer dollars. Earmarks have reached record levels, and the abuse of emergency spending bills is rampant.

Far from reforming entitlement programs, the Republicans compassionately created an exorbitant Medicare drug benefit that will add trillions of dollars to the program’s long-term shortfall–the gift that keeps on taking. Far from reducing the federal government’s scope, they have extended its reach into state and local
matters such as education, abortion, marriage law, and end-of-life medical decisions.

All true, sadly. Some of this is explainable by demographics (an aging population sucks up more medical benefits, especially as the cost of same is exploding due to a variety of factors outside the control of government) and some by the war. Most of it is just plain politics, though: Elected representatives catering to popular demands in hopes of getting re-elected.

Again, though, many of these decisions were being made during the post-Jeffords defection period when the Democrats seized control of the Senate. And, anyway, does Sallum really believe that a Congress controlled by Democrats would be less likely to pass increases in social welfare programs? Or that they’d suddenly stop inserting outrageous earmarks into the budget? Really? Thought experiment: Imagine a world where Robert Byrd was chairman of the committee in charge of allocating highway monies.

Sallum has a point here:

It takes no leap of faith to believe that a Congress run by Democrats would be more inclined to impose limits on the president’s surveillance, detention, and war powers. Or to suggest that Bush might suddenly find his veto pen when confronted by free-spending Democrats instead of free-spending Republicans.

Two minor problems, though. Even if the Democrats pick up a couple more seats than expected and thus regain a Senate majority, the Republicans would have the ability to filibuster legislation restricting the president’s war powers and such. Which they would absolutely exercise. And the veto power is virtually useless on spending bills in an era when budgets are passed at the last possible minute and so interlaced with unrelated items that presidents are forced to shut down the government or veto disaster relief or materiel support for troops in a war zone in order to stop unwanted spending on frivolous items. That’s not going to change, regardless of which party controls Congress.

As the Cato Institute’s William Niskanen points out, the only extended periods of fiscal restraint since World War II occurred during the Eisenhower and Clinton administrations, when different parties controlled the executive and legislative branches. “Government spending has increased an average of only 1.73 percent annually during periods of divided government,” he writes in the October Washington Monthly. “This number more than triples, to 5.26 percent, for periods of unified government.”

Ah, the joys of univariate social science analysis. Yes, there was divided government during much of the Eisenhower and Clinton presidencies. Also: Peace. The Korean War and Cold War, respectively, had just ended, meaning a massive decrease in defense-related spending.

One could certainly make a libertarian argument for divided government in general or ousting the Republicans currently in Congress in particular. But this ain’t it.

UPDATE: Robert Samuelson, himself a proponent of divided government, argues that it’s hardly a panacea.

The problem of American democracy is (of course) democracy. We are on the cusp of an election that commentators have already imbued with vast significance if Democrats recapture part or all of Congress — or if they don’t. But here’s something that no one’s saying: Regardless of who wins, it won’t make much difference for many pressing problems. We won’t have a major new budget policy, energy policy or immigration policy. The election might not even much affect the Iraq War.


The trouble is that public opinion is often ignorant, confused and contradictory; and so the policies it produces are often ignorant, confused and contradictory — which means they’re ineffective. The Catch-22 of American democracy is this: A government that mirrors public opinion offends public opinion by failing to do what it promises.


Occasionally, presidents and congresses get a free pass — some crisis or event fosters national unity. Bush had such a moment after 9/11; Lyndon Johnson had one after Kennedy’s assassination. Otherwise, politicians can deal with public opinion in three ways: Ignore it, change it or pander to it. Politicians who choose the first often become ex-politicians. The second is hard. The easiest course is to pander.

Bush and the Republican Congress happily cut taxes, enacted the Medicare drug benefit and praised deficit reduction. Anyone who thinks the Democrats set a higher standard should read “A New Direction for America,” the manifesto issued by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. It proposes much new spending (bigger drug benefits, Pell grants and veterans benefits), new tax breaks, balanced budgets and no specific new taxes.

The alternatives to democracy being, as they are, worse, this is a set of problems we’ll gladly live with. But Samuelson is right: Public opinion is fickle, contradictory, and often, in the short term at least, wrong. And politicians fail to heed it at their peril.

UPDATE: See also my analysis of Niskansen et al from September, “Conservatives Call for Republican Ouster.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    the decision to go to war in Iraq, the passage of No Child Left Behind, and various other decisions that have created this growth occurred during the period when the Democrats controlled the Senate.

    According to Bush, “the decision to go to war in Iraq” happened when the Republicans controlled the Senate. Yes, the Senate approved a resolution the President authority to pursue military action in October, 2002–authority, he arguably already possessed. But the decision itself–according to Bush–was not made until March, 2003.

    You must have been reading the Downing Street Memo, or something.

  2. Boyd says:

    Wrong decision, Triumph. While James may have been able to state it more clearly, what’s pertinent here is not the Commander-in-Chief’s decision to exercise the authority given him by Congress, but Congress’s decision to give him that authority.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Ceteris haven’t exactly been paribus over the last fourteen years.

    Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

  4. Bithead says:

    “divided government” is not just about counting the D’s and the R’s, and, upon noticing that they are relatively equal figuring that everything is under control.

    Using an example I brought up elsewhere;
    The usual leftist labeling of Nixon as a right wing monster, notwithstanding, Nixon was at best, a centrist, not unlike our current president. The reason that Nixon was not contained by a Democratic Congress, is because Nixon himself was far more liberal than most of his Democratic counterparts in the Congress. Indeed, that’s why Nixon chose Agnew as a running mate. He needed somebody father to the right to balance the ticket.

    Look, even assuming that stagnation in government would work to the end claimed, a 50/50 balance in Congress, given the number of Republicans in name only, does not stagnation make. If we actually take the time to look beyond the D or the R, and look instead at the ideology contained in each of the members of both houses, we discover that the problem is we now have a liberal majority in each representative body.