Divided government in the United States

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In the United States, divided government describes a situation in which one party controls the executive branch while another party controls one or both houses of the legislative branch.


Divided government is seen by different groups as a benefit or as an undesirable product of the model of governance used in the U.S. political system. Under said model, known as the separation of powers, the state is divided into different branches. Each branch has separate and independent powers and areas of responsibility so that the powers of one branch are not in conflict with the powers associated with the others. However, the degree to which the president of the United States has control of Congress often determines their political strength - such as the ability to pass sponsored legislation, ratify treaties, and have Cabinet members and judges approved.

The model can be contrasted with the fusion of powers in a parliamentary system where the executive and legislature (and sometimes parts of the judiciary) are unified. Those in favor of divided government believe that such separations encourage more policing of those in power by the opposition, as well as limiting spending and the expansion of undesirable laws. [1] Opponents, however, argue that divided governments become lethargic, leading to many gridlocks. In the late 1980s, Terry M. Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University, examined the issue. [2] He concluded that divided governments lead to compromise which can be seen as beneficial, but he also noticed that divided governments subvert performance and politicize the decisions of executive agencies.

Early in the 19th century, divided government was rare, but since the 1970s it has become increasingly common.

Party control of legislative and executive branches since 1861

Party control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives (including president's party): 1855-2021 Combined--Control of the U.S. House of Representatives - Control of the U.S. Senate.png
Party control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives (including president's party): 1855-2021
Party divisions and control of the house and senate.pdf

D denotes the Democratic Party and R denotes the Republican Party

Bold indicates a divided government.

YearPresidentSenateHouseNew President
1865–1867DRRA. Johnson
1901–1903RRRT. Roosevelt
1933–1935DDDF. Roosevelt
1989–1991RDDG.H.W. Bush
2001–2003RD*RG.W. Bush

*The 2000 election resulted in a 50–50 tie in the Senate, and the Constitution gives tie-breaking power to the vice president. The vice president was Democrat Al Gore from January 3, 2001 until the inauguration of Republican Richard Cheney on January 20, 2001. Then on May 24, 2001, Republican Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party to caucus with the Democrats as an independent, resulting in another shift of control. [6]

**The 2020 election resulted in a 50–50 tie in the Senate, and the Constitution gives tie-breaking power to the vice president. The vice president has been Kamala Harris since January 20, 2021.

Presidential impact

Many presidents' elections produced what is known as a coattail effect, in which the success of a presidential candidate also leads to electoral success for other members of his or her party. In fact, all newly elected presidents except Zachary Taylor, Richard Nixon, and George H. W. Bush were accompanied by control of at least one house of Congress.

Presidents by congressional control and terms won/served

Most columns are in numbers of years.

No.PresidentPresident's PartyElections wonYears servedSenate withSenate opposedHouse withHouse opposedxCongress withCongress opposedCongress divided
1 George Washington None288044404
2 John Adams Federalist144040400
3 Thomas Jefferson Democratic-Republican288080800
4 James Madison Democratic-Republican288080800
5 James Monroe Democratic-Republican288080800
6 John Quincy Adams Democratic-RepublicanNational-Republican140422022
7 Andrew Jackson Democratic286280602
8 Martin Van Buren Democratic144040400
9 William Harrison Whig10.
10 John Tyler WhigIndependent03.93.901.921.902
11 James Polk Democratic144022202
12 Zachary Taylor Whig110101010
13 Millard Fillmore Whig030303030
14 Franklin Pierce Democratic144022202
15 James Buchanan Democratic144022202
16 Abraham Lincoln RepublicanNational Union24.
17 Andrew Johnson DemocraticNational Union03.903.903.903.90
18 Ulysses Grant Republican288062602
19 Rutherford Hayes Republican142204022
20 James Garfield Republican10.500.50.50000.5
21 Chester Arthur Republican03.53.501.521.502
22 Grover Cleveland Democratic140440004
23 Benjamin Harrison Republican144022202
24 Grover Cleveland Democratic142222220
25 William McKinley Republican24.54.504.504.500
26 Theodore Roosevelt Republican17.57.507.507.500
27 William Taft Republican144022202
28 Woodrow Wilson Democratic286262620
29 Warren Harding Republican12.42.402.402.400
30 Calvin Coolidge Republican15.65.605.605.600
31 Herbert Hoover Republican144022202
32 Franklin Roosevelt Democratic412.212.2012.2012.200
33 Harry Truman Democratic17.85.825.825.820
34 Dwight Eisenhower Republican282626260
35 John Kennedy Democratic12.82.802.802.800
36 Lyndon Johnson Democratic15.
37 Richard Nixon Republican25.605.605.605.60
38 Gerald Ford Republican02.402.402.402.40
39 Jimmy Carter Democratic144 [7] 040400
40 Ronald Reagan Republican286208026
41 George H. W. Bush Republican140404040
42 Bill Clinton Democratic282 [8] 626260
43 George W. Bush Republican284.53.5624.521.5
44 Barack Obama Democratic286226224
45 Donald Trump Republican144022202
46 Joe Biden Democratic100 [9] 000000
No.PresidentPresident's PartyElections wonYears servedSenate withSenate opposedHouse withHouse opposedCongress withCongress opposedCongress divided

See also

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  1. "Would Divided Government Be Better?". Cato Institute . 3 September 2006. Archived from the original on 7 July 2019. Retrieved 16 August 2020.
  2. Moe, Terry (1989). "The Politics of Bureaucratic Structure" . Retrieved 2016-05-04.
  3. "Party In Power - Congress and Presidency - A Visual Guide To The Balance of Power In Congress, 1945-2008". Uspolitics.about.com. Archived from the original on November 1, 2012. Retrieved September 17, 2012.
  4. "Chart of Presidents of the United States". Filibustercartoons.com. Retrieved September 17, 2012.
  5. "Composition of Congress by Party 1855–2013". Infoplease.com. Retrieved September 17, 2012.
  6. Langer, Emily (2014-08-18). "James M. Jeffords, Vermont Republican who became independent, dies at 80". The Washington Post . ISSN   0190-8286 . Retrieved 2021-01-07.
  7. Carter served the last 17 days of his presidency with a Republican majority Senate.
  8. Clinton served the last 17 days of his 2nd term with a 50-50 majority in the senate with Al Gore being the tie breaker for the democrats after they won control in the 2000 elections until Republican vice president Dick Cheney was sworn in and broke the tie in favor of the republicans.
  9. Biden served his first term with a 50-50 majority in the senate with Kamala Harris being the tie breaker for the democrats after the senators elected in Georgia's senate runoff elections and the senator appointed by the governor of California were sworn in on January 20th, 2021.

Further reading