Divided We Govern

5 May 2016

Mayhew’s Thesis: “Divided government, which the separation of powers produces, works as well as unified government that party discipline would create.” First Question: “Even if important laws win enactment just as often under conditions of divided party control, might they not be worse than laws?

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Isn’t “seriously defective legislation” a likelier result?” Mayhew’s Answer: “That is sometimes alleged, and if true it would obviously count heavily. Enacting coalitions under divided control, being composed of elements not “naturally” united on policy goals, might be less apt to write either clear ends or efficient means into their statutes. Such coalitions, absolved from unambiguous “party government” checks by the electorate down the line, might worry less about the actual effects of laws.”

Second Question: “Even if important individual statutes can win enactment regardless of conditions of party control, how about programmatic “coherence” across statutes? Isn’t that a likelier outcome under unified party control?” Mayhew’s Answer: “One’s first response is to note that “coherence” exists in the eye of the beholders, that beholders differ in what they see, and in any event, why is “coherence” necessary or desirable?

Democracy, according to some leading models, can function well enough as an assortment of decentralized, unconnected incursions into public affairs.” Widespread agreement exists about two patterns of coherence, ideological and budgetary. A system needs to allow ideological packaging “to permit broad ranging change of the sort recommended by ideologies and to provide a graspable politics to sectors of the public who might be interested in such change.”

Example: “The postwar American system has accommodated it (ideological packaging) under circumstances of both unified and divided party control—notably in the successfully enacted presidential programs of Johnson and Reagan, and in the liberal legislative surge of 1963 through 1975-1976.”

Third Question: “Doesn’t government administration suffer as a result of divided party control? Doesn’t exaggerated pulling and hauling between president and Congress undermine the implementation of laws and, in general, the functioning of agencies and the administration of programs?”

Mayhew’s Answer: “High-publicity Capitol Hill investigations, which have been discussed, are relevant to an answer, but the subject is broader than that. To implicate divided party control plausibly, one has to argue that two conditions were necessary for this “micro-management regime” to come into existence.

First, party control had to be divided: Congress would not have inaugurated such a regime otherwise. Second, there had to occur some unusual shock to the system such as Watergate, Nixon’s conduct of the war, or simply Nixon’s aggressive presidency: Divided control would not have endangered such a regime otherwise.

Divided control, that is, was a necessary part of the causal structure that triggered the regime.” Example: “The plausible instance is Congress’s thrust toward “micro-managing” the executive branch in recent decades.

That is, Congress has greatly increased its staff who monitor the administration, multiplied its days of oversight hearings, greatly expanded its use of the legislative veto, taken to writing exceptionally detailed statures that limit bureaucratic discretion, and tried to trim presidential power through such measures as the War Powers Act of 1973 and the Budget and Impoundment Act of 1974.

An abundant list of alternative causes includes public and congressional reaction to the Vietnam War and the public’s rising distrust of bureaucracy.” Micro-management was established by itself during the Nixon-Ford term of 1973-76. Fourth Question: “Does the conduct of foreign policy suffer under divided party control?” Mayhew’s Answer: “Perhaps an excess of “deadlock” or “non-coordination” occurs under conditions of divided control. Foreign policy is often a fighting matter at home.

There does not seem to be any way around this. “Coordination,” however much sense it may seem to make does not and cannot dominate every other value. Here is a prediction of what most readers will conclude: IN general, the record was no worse when the two parties shared power.” Example: “Any appraisal has to accommodate or steer around, for example, the Marshall Plan, which owed to bipartisan cooperation during a time of divvied control.”

Fifth Question: “Are the country’s lower-income strata served less well under divided party control?” Mayhew’s Answer: “The Reaganite assault against both the Great Society and the 1970s pitted era against era and mood against mood. But it did not pit divided party control against unified party control or even all that clearly Republicans against Democrats.” Example: The Nixon and Ford years were a time of divided control.

“The period was the source of EEA and CETA jobs, expanded unemployment insurance, low-income energy assistance, post-1974 housing allowances, Pell grants for lower-income college students, greatly multiplied food-stamps assistance, a notable progressivizing of tax incidence, Supplementary Security Income for the aged, blind, and disabled, and Social Security increases that cut the proportion of aged below the poverty line from 25 percent in 1970 to 16 percent in 1974. The laws just kept getting passed.”

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