NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Virtues Of Gridlock

January 24, 2000

Pundits hate divided government, when one party occupies the White House and the other one controls one or both houses of Congress. They believe it is responsible for "gridlock," which they view as a bad thing.

Implicitly, pundits prefer parliamentary government, in which the executive and legislative branches of government are in effect unified. This view is simplistic and utterly contrary to the views of the Founding Fathers. They explicitly rejected parliamentary government, fearing that programs too easily enacted would be bad for the country. They chose a system in which enactment of legislation was supposed to be difficult.

As political scientist Sarah Binder put it in the latest Brookings Review: "In many ways, gridlock is endemic to our national politics, the natural consequence of separated institutions sharing and competing for power."

Furthermore, in every NBC/Wall Street Journal poll since 1986, when asked whether they prefer Congress and the White House to be controlled by the same or different political parties, a majority of people said they preferred divided government.

In any event, Bill Clinton has accomplished far more of his agenda since the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994. And of course, Ronald Reagan enacted all of his program while Democrats controlled at least one house.

This observation is confirmed by statistical analysis. Binder looked at the effectiveness of government to deal with significant policy issues throughout the postwar period.

She estimates that divided government increased the incidence of gridlock by just 8 percent. With an average of 25 major issues before each Congress, unification of Congress and the White House under one party led to just two additional issues being resolved.

Source: Bruce Bartlett (senior fellow, National Center for Policy Analysis), "United Behind Divided Government," Financial Times (London), January 21, 2000.


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