By Matt Harris
In the wake of the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, a general sense of the political landscape in the upcoming 118th Congress has taken shape. With Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s announcement that she is leaving the Democratic Party and Sen. Raphael Warnock’s victory in Georgia’s runoff, Democrats will maintain control in the Senate, while Republicans will take control of the House.
Divided government sparks fears of gridlock, a legislative standstill. At face value, this makes sense. Given the different policy priorities of the two major parties, you might expect to see each party passing legislation out of the chamber it controls that has little chance in the other chamber – and thus no chance of becoming law.
Logically, this means a less productive legislature than one in which a single party with a unified agenda controls both chambers and the presidency.
But as a political scientist who studies partisanship, I believe that divided government – including during the upcoming legislative session – will not produce greatly different legislative results than unified government.
This isn’t exactly a hopeful story, though.
Not much passes
The first reason that divided government isn’t less productive than unified government is because unified government isn’t very productive in the first place. It’s really hard to get things done even when the same party controls both chambers and the presidency.
Most legislation only clears the Senate if it has the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. Neither party has come close to a so-called “filibuster-proof majority” of 60 seats since 2010, when Democrats briefly held 60 seats prior to Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy’s death and the election of Republican Scott Brown to that seat. Thus, even a unified government is likely only passing measures that have some degree of minority party support.
There are ways to force passage of legislation when one party doesn’t want it to pass. A process called budget reconciliation is not subject to filibuster, but it can only be used on provisions that deal directly with changes in revenues or spending. This is what happened with the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which Democrats were able to pass via reconciliation, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote.
Further, legislative success under unified government assumes that the majority party is united. There is no guarantee of this, as seen in 2017 when Republican senators John McCain, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins joined Democrats in blocking the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Between 2011 and 2020 the vast majority of new laws clearing the House – roughly 90% – and the Senate – roughly 75% –did so with a majority of minority party members in support.
Even landmark legislation usually has support from most minority party members in at least one chamber. For example, the substantial 2020 revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, passed the House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support, as did the defense bill that created the Space Force.
Rewards – and risks – in crossing lines
On a more positive note, divided government may still provide opportunities for legislative breakthroughs.
The reason? The local orientation of Congress – lawmakers need to respond to their district’s voters.
In the House, according to a New York Times analysis, Republicans won 10 of the most competitive districts, including five in New York state alone. But the Cook Partisan Voting Index, which measures how strongly a district leans in favor of one party or the other, scores some of these districts as tilting Democratic – potentially giving these Republican members of Congress reason to reach across the aisle. The same goes for Democratic lawmakers whose districts tilt Republican.
But these kinds of mixed districts can also make it hard for sitting lawmakers to vote with their own party. While parties will work to keep a united front, research suggests that voters may punish those members of Congress who toe the party line too closely – providing a potential incentive for crossing party lines. Democratic legislators in Republican-leaning districts who voted for the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, or the stimulus bill, all Democratic Party priorities, suffered electorally in the 2010 midterms, receiving a lower vote share than those who voted against the legislation. In many cases, these lawmakers lost their seats.
Still, defections may be more likely given weak leadership, and currently it’s not certain who will fill the speaker’s role in the next Congress.
More consequential aspects
You don’t have to search for long to see examples of large legislative achievements produced during periods of divided government.
Divided government produced welfare reform in the 1990s and Social Security reform in the 1980s. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed a Republican Senate and a Democratic House overwhelmingly in March 2020.
Certainly, there have been times during which unified governments have pushed legislation through with little minority party support. The Affordable Care Act and the Trump tax cuts were among them. But bipartisan legislative victories are much more common.
There are probably more consequential aspects to the GOP’s takeover of the House of Representatives than concerns over legislative gridlock.
House Republicans have already talked about using the investigatory powers of the chamber to investigate everyone from Hunter Biden to Anthony Fauci. A debt ceiling showdown, in which the GOP might use the threat of default on the U.S. government’s debt to force spending cuts, looms for what feels like the dozenth time in the past several years.
Matt Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Park University
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The first of many to defect. The democrat party is more concerned with trans rights than inflation. More concerned with equity than immigration. More concerned with criminal reform than crime.
The party of intolerance, lies and censorship is done.
Deborah Coffey says
You may wish it but, none of what you wrote is reality according to the 2022 election! Looks to the majority of the country that Republicans are more concerned with trans kids having no rights than inflation. (I don’t think you can tell anyone the Republican plan for inflation because there isn’t one.) Republicans are more concerned with immigration than with equity for current American citizens (who are “not like them”). Republicans are not concerned with criminal reform because they are the ones committing all the crimes, not to mention they think only Blacks are criminals! How many Jan. 6th insurrectionists have been indicted and convicted or have plead guilty? And, then of course, there’s Trump and his minions including a dozen or more Republican Congressmen…who will all be indicted and be serving time in prison. Why on earth would THEY want reform while they’re trying to blame everyone else for THEIR crimes?
Ray W. says
Curiously, George presents as another wanderer, who has, likes all of us, the right to wander through life fooling himself.
I agree George about life presenting us all with multiple competing issues. But I disagree with George about the idea he presents to FlaglerLive readers that because one party focuses on an issue, it means that the issue is automatically more important than other issues.
Obvious to all, the Biden administration is concerned about inflation, because of legislation signed into law and administrative solutions adopted. Months ago, I researched the number of American recessions during my lifetime.
1. The Eisenhower Recession from August 1958 to April 1959 is believed to have been caused by both a flu epidemic that killed 80,000 Americans and the Suez Canal Crisis, which impacted crude oil supplies. That administration tightened monetary policies, with the Fed raising interest rates. Unemployment rose, exports fell, car sales lessened. That administration’s stimulus package included increased infrastructure spending.
2. Second Eisenhower Recession from April 1960 to February 1961. An industrial contraction is asserted as responsible for rising unemployment and the Fed raising interest rates. The incoming Kennedy administration’s stimulus package included expanded Social Security and unemployment benefits.
3. The Nixon Recession from December 1969 to November 1970, believed to be a response to efforts to cool an overheating economy. Interest rates rose to 9%. Unemployment figures also rose.
4. Second Nixon Recession from November 1973 to March 1975, coinciding with the first major OPEC oil embargo and the Yom Kippur War. Eventually, Nixon signed an executive order freezing prices, perhaps the closest we have ever come to a socialist economy. The unemployment rate doubled, and Fed controlled interest rates tripled. The term “stagflation” was coined. The concept of “peak oil production” was reached and American crude oil production slowly waned for the next 35 years, until reversing during the Obama administration.
5. The Carter Recession from January to July 1980. The Iranian Revolution interrupted worldwide crude oil supplies. Inflation rose to 13.5% and the Fed raised interest rates.
6. The Reagan Double-Dip Recession from July 1981 to November 1982. During the Iran/Iraq War, Iran intermittently cut crude oil exports. The Fed raised interest rates to an astounding 21.5% to curb inflation. Unemployment peaked at over 10%. Congress cut the tax rate and the Reagan administration increased defense spending to curb the recession.
The Bush Recession from July 1990 to March 1991. Iraq invaded Kuwait, curbing crude oil exports worldwide. The stock market crash is now known as the Savings & Loan Crisis.
8. The Bush Recession from March to November 2001. Coinciding with the Dot.com Crash, low interest rates and a strong housing market helped shorten the recession.
9. The Bush/Obama Recession from December 2007 to June 2009. A global financial crisis triggered in large part by the collapse of the American housing bubble resulted in a $1.5 trillion total stimulus package. Early in the recession, speculation in the crude oil futures market triggered an oil price spike above $140 per barrel. Unemployment rose above 10%.
After this last true American recession ended, America enjoyed the longest growth spurt in history through 79 months of the Obama administration and the first 37 months of the Trump administration. Clearly, American prosperity was deeply impacted by the pandemic, and it still is. Congress responded by both houses overwhelmingly voting for a $1 trillion stimulus package (Senate vote was 96-0), which then-President Trump signed into law. Inflation began rising from its long hovering around the 2% mark to over 4% at the end to the Trump administration.
It seems clear to me that many recessions are triggered by interruptions in worldwide crude oil supplies, coupled in some instances by foreign wars. Administrations respond by engaging in stimulus spending and by raising interest rates. Unemployment rates rise, sometimes dramatically. Many FlaglerLive commenters seems convinced that we are in a recession, but economists are almost of a one mind in stating that so long as employment figures remain strong, we do not meet the criteria necessary to call today’s economic conditions a recession.
In summary, the issue seems to be that stimulus spending is an automatic governmental response to the onset of recession. The question seems to be not whether stimulus packages must be passed by Congress but how large must the stimulus package be? The second stimulus package, this time $1.9 trillion might have been too large, but it seems clear that a second stimulus package was needed. I do not argue that there will be consequences to any stimulus package, and we probably haven’t seen the full impact of a combined $2.9 trillion package spanning two administrations, nor will we for a long time. Historically, it has to be noted that almost all of the American recessions during my lifetime have occurred during Republican administrations and most of the recessions were accompanied by deficit spending packages.
I agree with George that the Republican party has hurt itself with intolerance, lies and censorship, but I just can’t say it is done quite yet. I was startled to watch the very recent video of a prominent minister testifying that he was present at a meeting between a number of leading American ministers and representatives of the Republican Party about a dozen years ago. The deal, as presented, was that if the ministers wanted an end to Roe v. Wade, they needed to be all in on the Republican platform. The ministers agreed to those terms. The minister now characterizes their submission as a “deal with the devil.”
Do they work for the people?
William Moya says
In an oblique way this takes the Dems of the hook, i.e they wont be able to pass their most progressive “programs”, remain the centrist party that they are, and blame outsiders, while promising that if we vote for them in the next elections they’ll give us Nirvana, that’s their MO, and their goal is to keep the status quo.