The Framers of the U.S. Constitution anticipated, and, in fact, were counting on the possibility that, at times, as James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, "[a]mbition must be made to counter ambition." (1) But is the Framer's constitutional design still relevant? In other words, in the modern era, is divided government good for the United States? It is not for three reasons: divided government leads to an unjustifiable weakness in government brought about by a lack of accountability; it produces legislative "gridlock"; and it contributes to a diminution of the expression of the popular will.
There are numerous reasons for one to believe that the United States benefits from divided government. Some political commentators and politicians maintain that it acts as a restraint on government, limiting party overreach by forcing politicians to compromise on important issues. (2) Perhaps the most compelling argument made in favor of divided government is that it is more representative of the electorate since not all Americans identify exclusively with a particular party. As William Niskanen, chair emeritus of the Cato Institute, notes, "American voters, in their unarticulated collective wisdom, have voted for a divided federal government for most of the past 50 years." (3) But can anyone prove that divided government actually produces better results?
The claim that a party, duly elected by the people to govern, needs to be balanced by a party rejected at the polls violates democratic principles. If the electorate votes overwhelmingly for members of a particular party to carry out a specific political agenda, it is absurd and a bit paternalistic to deny the public's wishes by forcing the victorious party to heed the demands of its opponents. Divided government generally refers to the division of the policy-making functions of government, but there are plenty of checks and balances elsewhere in the constitutional design of American governance to prevent government from going too far, too fast. The levers of power in the U.S. government are not merely concentrated in the presidency and Congress. The Supreme Court, the states, the Constitution, and the people all constitute centers of power that can "check and balance" the power of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. For example, if Congress overreaches, it may be checked by a presidential veto. If both Congress and the president overreach, they can be checked by the Supreme Court. In addition, the states and the people have enumerated rights under the Constitution that limit the power of the federal government, thus preventing overreach by one branch of government over the other.
Even under unified government, checks and balances are exercised in accordance with constitutional provisions. Consequently, further division between the different branches of the federal government is not necessary, and could actually prove detrimental. Take, for example, the crucial role the president plays as both chief diplomat and commander in chief. In most areas of foreign policy, the president acts as the sole organ representing the United States with limited input from Congress. This is a good thing when one considers the alternative: How would American foreign policy be conducted if every policy decision was subject to modification or influence by 535 national legislators? The nature of international affairs requires that a president act quickly, often in secrecy, to present clear and unified policies that address international concerns. Even so, de facto unity in the formulation and conduct of American foreign policy still allows the electorate to hold their president accountable for diplomatic successes and failures. If this holds true for foreign policy, one must ask why divided government works in addressing domestic problems but not foreign issues?
Another argument advanced by those who support divided government is that it keeps the government, as Governor Haley Barbour (R-MS) stated in reference to President Barack Obama's health care initiative, from going "too far, too fast, too soon, too much." (4) Still, it is important to ask whether radical change is necessarily a bad thing. The use of the term "radical" has a pejorative connotation. Often it is used simply to discredit the policy prescriptions of political opponents when, in fact, what is deemed "radical" may prove to be good for the country.
Too often in American history, substantial and wide-ranging reform has been needed, and when such change occurred it invariably came about during a period of unified government. Such so-called radical changes include the New Deal, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and the Great Society. None of these reforms would have happened had government been sharply divided. These examples challenge the notion that "radical" change is necessarily bad. In fact, without divided government, more substantial and useful change might take place.
Of course, divided government could prevent an "unwanted" radical change. Fortunately, the Constitution includes safeguards against such change, even when the same party controls Congress and the White House. Again, the existing system of checks and balances, short of divided government, would prevent these changes. The Supreme Court, through the power of judicial review, can declare legislation unconstitutional. States can drag their feet in implementing federal...