The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why losing the Senate could help make President Obama’s last two years more productive

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Attention fans of getting things done in Washington (which, we acknowledge at the outset, is not everybody): You might want to root for Republicans to win the Senate majority this November. Wait. Calm down. Allow us to explain.

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal offered that there might be a "silver lining" for President Obama if Democrats lose the Senate this fall. "For Mr. Obama, in particular," the Journal's Gerald Seib wrote, "full GOP control of Congress might well shift Republicans' focus from stopping him to making things happen." And history backs up the claim that the split might be better, he argued, because "eras of evenly divided power ... have turned out to be among the most productive."

That's easy to check, so we did. Using data for the past 21 Congresses (nearly a fifth of the total!) from GovTrack, we looked at how many bills were passed by each Congress, breaking them down into three categories. Split governments like those Seib celebrates, had a president of one party and a Congress of the other. Unified governments, where Congress and the president are of the same party, seem like they'd be even more productive, so we broke them out separately. And then there's every other Congress, where the Congress itself is split by party with one side controlling the House and the other the Senate.

The split government situation occurred in nine of the 21 Congresses — and, on average, were indeed the most productive.

Let's go back to our initial parenthetical. What's measured in the data above is the number of bills passed in each Congress. Some would argue that this is not a measure of the utility of the body; it seems as though passing bills is antithetical to efforts to keep government small, for example. (Our Aaron Blake has rebutted this nicely.) But for a president that would clearly like to have more bills passed — to the extent that, where possible, he's loudly exercised his executive authority in lieu of Congressional action — getting more bills passed seems like a good outcome. A balance of powers, Seib argues, could offer more motivation for compromise from both sides. (Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman made a similar point to us last week.)

Could the 114th Congress halt the ongoing trend of low productiveness from Capitol Hill? Perhaps. But strong partisans of any stripe might not be excited about either the process or result of getting there.