Menus Subscribe Search

Divided Government Usually Means Gridlock

• November 04, 2010 • 4:19 PM

There’s likely one area of agreement for both the main political parties in Washington, D.C.: We expect to get little done in the next two years.

Barack Obama stood behind the podium at the White House on Wednesday after his party took a historic drubbing in the midterm elections and forecast the calm, constructive path that lies ahead. He will get together with Republican John Boehner, the likely speaker of the House come January, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and together the long-warring politicians will find common ground on tax cuts, energy policy and job creation.

“What we’re going to need to do, and what the American people want, is for us to mix and match ideas, figure out those areas where we can agree on, move forward on those, and disagree without being disagreeable on those areas that we can’t agree on,” he said. “If we accomplish that, then there will be time for politics later.”

This is a nice vision, and Obama’s first White House social with the newly empowered Republicans has already been given a feel-good moniker: The Slurpee summit!

History, though, predicts a different scene. Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University and a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, doubts Obama and Boehner will agree on Slurpee flavors, much less any substantive policy in the two years to come. Divided government in Washington, more often than not, doesn’t force parties to the center for compromise; it causes gridlock.

“The caveat is that we can’t tell all that much from divided government alone,” Binder said.

Divided government (also known by its nicer name, “shared power”) has in the past produced some big things: the Clean Air Act in the 1970s and tax reform in the 1980s (both executed with Democratic Houses and Republican presidents), and welfare reform in the 1990s (with a Democratic president and a Republican Congress). But those governments all had something the 112th Congress will lack in a big way.

“If you look back to the ’60s and ’70s, how could a divided government be so productive? Well, 30-40 percent of the chamber were ideological moderates,” Binder said. “If you need large bipartisan majorities to get much done, and you don’t have 60 votes by yourself, then moderates in the middle make a big difference. And we don’t have any of that today.”

In fact, polarization in the capitol — already at historic highs — grew worse Tuesday night, with moderates heavily picked off by voters. The “Blue Dog” Democrats in the House lost half their caucus on election night.

This means that we head into 2011 with a paralyzing pair of factors in Washington: Government is divided, and the two parties sit particularly far apart. There’s no perfect historic analogy for this moment, Binder said, although the era ushered in by the 1994 midterms may come closest.

“Things do get done in divided government,” she warned. “But more gets left undone.”

Even if the two parties are able to find areas where they can agree, as Obama suggests they can, that’s not a promise of compromise, either. Republicans, after all, found a pretty successful strategy the last two years in refusing to do just that, on principle.

Binder was stumped as to whether historic patterns can help predict when parties will behave this way — refusing to compromise as a political strategy in and of itself.

“For a while we all thought it had to do something with the size of the majority,” she said. The smaller the in-party’s majority, the more likely the minority party is to think control is within reach if it just digs in a little longer. “But [now] I’m not so sure about that. We’ve had oversized Democratic majorities and no less digging in of the heels by the Republican minority.”

Some Republicans have been blunt about their intentions not to bend, and the Tea Party is sending candidates to town explicitly with a no-compromise mandate. The best hope may be that the parties begrudgingly work together, each in search of the credit for reviving the economy.

But an energy bill, immigration reform, a deficit solution — history says they’re not likely.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 4:00 PM

Professors’ Pet Peeves

Ten things to avoid in your classrooms this year.


September 2 • 2:00 PM

Music Lessons Enhance Brain Function in Disadvantaged Kids

Children from poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles who took regular music lessons for two years were able to distinguish similar speech sounds faster than their peers.


September 2 • 12:00 PM

California Passes a Bill to Protect Workers in the Rapidly Growing Temp Staffing Industry

The bill will hold companies accountable for labor abuses by temp agencies and subcontractors they use.


September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.