Dec 11, 2018

How Congress Can Make A Divided Government Work—And Succeed

As January—and the start of a new Congress—approaches, policymakers in D.C. will be faced with a unique situation: a divided government. In the U.S., a divided government is when one party controls the executive branch while another party controls one or both houses of the legislative branch. Although not uncommon, there have only been 25 instances in the last 117 years (excluding the incoming 116th Congress)—including the entire duration of the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush administrations.

While legislators are often confronted with challenges in a divided government, they are also provided an opportunity to prioritize bipartisanship for the greater good of the nation. The strength of government is tested when Congress is divided, but history has repeatedly shown our exceptional ability to overcome partisanship to make a divided government work: in our nation’s history, divided governments have often been the most productive and successful.

Here’s a look at some of the greatest bipartisan achievements that have occurred during divided governments in modern history:

  • 1977, The Food Stamp Program: After being phased out in 1943 when it was no longer needed, an effort to revive program began in the early 1960s, but Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on how to best execute its reintroduction. Republican Senator Bob Dole and Democratic Senator George McGovern joined forces to support a bipartisan compromise, which bridged both parties’ goals, and the 1977 Food Stamp Act became law.
  • 1983, Social Security Reform: One of the most divisive political issues on Capitol Hill is Social Security, but when the Social Security Trust Fund was poised to run a deficit in the early 1980s, Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together to reform the program. Party leaders, Republican Senator Bob Dole and Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, rallied the support of their caucuses by encouraging their focus on the problem at hand, not bitter partisan battles, and the Social Security Act was signed into law.
  • 1990, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Despite electing Franklin D. Roosevelt, a disabled man, as president in 1932, there were no protections against discrimination of disabled people. After a grueling debate between parties and chambers, Congress came together to protect a minority from discrimination. The ADA was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, and its lasting impact has been felt by millions of Americans with disabilities.
  • 2001, No Child Left Behind: Following up on a campaign promise, President George W. Bush introduced a blueprint to Congress for a new and sweeping federal slate of standards-based education programs. In addition to bipartisan leadership by Republicans Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Judd Gregg and Democrat Rep. George Miller, this act was truly able to overcome the challenges of a divided government when it received the support of Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, an avid proponent of education reform and a major critic of Republican President George W. Bush. This allowed the president to deliver a key campaign promise despite Congress’s division.
  • 2012, JOBS Act: Created to help aid entrepreneurship and small business growth by limiting federal regulations and allowing individuals to invest in new companies, the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act dramatically increased the use of crowdfunding platforms, which are used to raise money for a variety of causes, such as startups, nonprofit organizations, or personal projects. As stated by former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, “the bipartisan JOBS Act represents an increasingly rare legislative victory in Washington where both sides seized the opportunity to work together, improved the bill, and passed it with strong bipartisan support.” It passed a divided Congress and was signed into law by President Obama.
  • 2016, 21st Century Cures Act: Despite healthcare being a combative issue, a sweeping bipartisan agreement occurred around the 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed into law by President Obama. This bill increased funding and resources for the National Institutes of Health to expand biomedical research for cures and treatments of various illnesses and diseases.

These six major bipartisan accomplishments show the power of a divided government to come together on a core set of “kitchen-table” issues to which all Americans can relate—like health and Social Security. This list should not only bring hope for what can be achieved during a divided government, it should also serve as a motivating factor for Congress to come together across the aisle to lead a divided nation—and confront the challenges facing our country.

The 116th Congress should start this effort by coalescing to implement a new Committee on the Organization of Congress. In their history (there have been three since 1946 with the last one in 1993), these committees have modernized and improved Congress’s functioning by analyzing its rules and procedures. Having occurred every twenty or so years, the time for Congress to reform itself again is now. With a new Congress and the inclusion of this

committee in incoming House Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA)’s proposed rules package, there is a unique opportunity for this committee to become a reality in 2019. Email your elected officials today and ask them to make Congress work better for you by supporting the creation of a new Committee on the Organization of Congress!

Is Congress Working for You?