The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senate, House control is split. Can a divided government make progress?

Some voters said they cast ballots for Republicans in congressional races because they wanted to end single-party Democratic control of Washington, but history shows that divided government doesn’t always lead to bipartisan progress

Alejandro Flores-Muñoz watches election returns at a Democratic election night watch party in Denver on Nov. 8. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Some voters chose last week to divide America’s government — giving Republicans control of at least one house of Congress as a Democrat continues in the White House — specifically to gum up the works and slam the brakes on the party in power. Some voted to express their frustration over soaring prices and their sense that the country is moving in the wrong direction. And some sought to split control of Washington to encourage, even force, the two parties to do business with each other.

Although this month’s midterm elections remain unresolved in several key states and Democrats retained a narrow majority in the Senate, President Biden’s two years of all-Democratic control of the executive and legislative branches of government is coming to an end. There was no red wave, and voters in aggregate seemed more exhausted than energized by both parties’ extreme fringes. Still, Republicans will have a small majority in the House come January, when the new Congress is sworn in, allowing them to obstruct many Biden initiatives and forcing the two parties to work together, at least minimally, if they intend to keep the government operating.

The next two years will be, depending on whom you believe, “a recipe for gridlock” — so says Ralph Nader, the third-party activist who knows a thing or two about razor-thin electoral margins — or “a grand opportunity for big breakthroughs,” in the view of Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker who made his name as leader of one side of a sharply divided government in the 1990s.

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Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, creating a split Congress and dealing a blow to President Biden and his agenda.
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For much of American history, divided government was the exception. But since World War II, it has become pretty much the rule. Presidents have led unified governments — with their party controlling both the Senate and the House — for only 16 of the past 52 years. Democratic presidents enjoyed unified rule most often: Jimmy Carter for his entire four-year term, and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Biden each for only two years. George W. Bush and Donald Trump were the only Republicans to get that opportunity, for portions of their terms.

Last week, some voters said they cast their ballots with the stated aim of ending Democratic control of the elected branches of government.

Raised in a Democratic family, Sarah Kehlenbeck was a Democrat herself for many years. But as retirees living primarily on fixed incomes in West Des Moines, Iowa, she and her husband felt compelled to use their vote to make clear their plight in an economy that she said has “really tanked.” She voted to reelect a Republican senator, Charles E. Grassley, to try to cleave control of the Senate away from the Democrats.

Divided government has “happened before, and it usually happened after a president didn't do a real good job of providing for the country,” she said. A power split could “ideally cause them to have to get together and work things out.”

In New Britain, Conn., Gonzalo Ortega, a 19-year-old college student studying engineering, voted for Republican challenger George Logan in a hotly-contested congressional race not so much to make progress on any particular policy, but because “it keeps both sides in check. It doesn’t allow either side to do anything too extreme.”

But the idea of divided government smacked of a disturbing paralysis to voters in New Britain, who reelected their Democratic House incumbent, Jahana Hayes. “I’m terrified that the Republicans can get into any kind of power,” said Sheri Toczko, 44, a Democrat who is on disability leave.

Setting the two parties against each other in Washington is a deeply ingrained American habit. As far back as 1992, a National Election Studies survey found that 40 percent of Americans liked it “better when control is split between the Democrats and Republicans,” as opposed to 32 percent who preferred “when one party controls both the presidency and Congress.”

The debate over unified vs. divided control of Washington has shifted back and forth through the years. In 2010, according to a Pew Research study, Americans said by a 42 percent to 22 percent margin that they were more likely to vote for a candidate who will compromise with people with whom they disagree.

Eight years later, before the last midterm elections in 2018, the pendulum had shifted and Pew found that Americans preferred politicians who stick to their positions over those who compromise with the other side, by 53 percent to 44 percent. The 2018 survey was the first in seven Pew polls since 2011 to find that Democrats were just as skeptical of compromise as Republicans.

The nation’s founders worried that one-party rule would concentrate too much power in one set of politicians. “Where a majority are united by a common sentiment,” James Madison wrote, “the rights of the minority become insecure.”

Most recently, the sharp increase in political and cultural polarization and a growing tendency by voters to demonize the opposing party have bolstered many Americans’ wont to vote out the party in power.

“Shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties,” Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, tweeted last week, asking “independent-minded voters” to vote “for a Republican Congress, given that the presidency is Democratic.”

But attitudes toward divided government are not entirely cynical or Machiavellian. Curiously, the highest presidential approval ratings achieved in the postwar era have come during periods of divided government: Ronald Reagan at 63 percent and Clinton at 66 percent.

Many academics who’ve studied voting behavior warn that there’s little evidence that Americans vote specifically to keep Washington out of one party’s hands; sometimes, they just want to throw the bums out or vote for their favorite candidates, regardless of the impact on the balance of power.

“The evidence is less that voters consciously choose to divide the government and more that they’re just expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who studies political party alignment. “What we’ve seen in divided governments in the past tells us that Republicans now will be less willing to compromise, will launch all sorts of investigations and could very well attempt to impeach administration officials all the way up to the president. We’re in for a confrontational two years, with the possibility of government shutdown.”

GOP congressional majorities would pivot to spending cuts, Biden probes

But some politicians who’ve lived through divided government say voters correctly intuit that split control can produce significant policy deals.

“Divided government has not been very pretty in recent years because of polarization and personalities, but it’s often a good thing and it can produce real breakthroughs,” said Gingrich, who rode the 1994 midterm division of government control to a period of intense battle and occasional compromise with Clinton.

Several historians cited the welfare reform that Gingrich and Clinton pushed through in 1996, the deal to save Social Security that Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill agreed to in 1983, and the tax reform of 1986 that the same duo supported as examples of how divided government can give both parties cover to agree to big changes, knowing that the other party won’t bash them for it.

And even those who argue that split government deters cooperation cite examples of bipartisanship that emerged from such periods: the Marshall Plan and the containment of the Soviet threat in the 1950s and 60s, and the consensus on expanding civil rights and voting rights in the 60s.

“But that kind of bipartisanship is unimaginable now, in this time of such high partisan animosity, when people believe that the other side is not just their opponents but their enemies,” Abramowitz said.

To the contrary, Gingrich contends, such cooperation can happen again, even amid the hyper-partisanship of the era that put Donald Trump in the White House, even with Republicans who have made a bright show of their oppositional attitudes toward almost anything Democrats propose.

“The great challenge is for Kevin McCarthy — the key figure here: Can he develop and communicate some ideas and start passing serious things?” Gingrich asked, referring to the House Republican leader representing California who hopes to be chosen as speaker.

But although McCarthy has posted dozens of policy proposals online, calling his agenda “Commitment to America,” others in his party seem focused on a different, more antagonistic approach. The House Freedom Caucus of hard-liners most loyal to Trump — many of whom reject the fact that Biden legitimately won the 2020 election — includes members who want to impeach Biden or some in his Cabinet, including Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

“Are we going to be a Congress that is going to [say] our job for the next two years is to block everything that’s going to come out of this administration?” asked Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), whose reelection bid remains unsettled, awaiting a tabulation of ranked choice votes on Nov. 23. “Or is it going to be ‘Let’s try to figure out how we can we can move forward on some initiatives … that can work not only to the benefit of Republicans, but the benefit of the country’?”

One of Murkowski’s constituents in Anchorage, Steve Lane, 72, said he voted for her because he likes her independent streak; still, he said he expects Republicans to set aside any serious policy agenda and spend “two years on investigations. And we’re gonna have an impeachment or two … I don’t think you’ll stand a chance of doing anything. Very little legislation. Congress has been dysfunctional.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who in recent years boasted of his ability to halt Democratic initiatives, said in 2014, when Republicans wrested control of the Senate during Obama’s presidency, that “When the American people choose divided government, I don’t think it means they don’t want us to do anything.”

But the years that followed saw little bipartisan action on major issues, as McConnell and other congressional Republicans mainly focused on blocking Obama’s agenda, including some of his judicial nominations.

Biden, in a news conference the day after the midterms, said he is “ready to compromise with Republicans where it makes sense on many issues,” adding that voters “made it clear: They don’t want every day to be a political battle.”

The idea that voters strategically choose to inject the out-of-power party back into the cockpit of government, either to slam the brakes on legislative overreach or to promote bipartisan compromise, strikes some observers as too generous a concept of how voters approach their decisions.

“You’re giving too much credit to the tens of millions of five-minute voters who just don’t look into the candidates and their proposals,” said Nader, whose independent bid for president in 2000 may have made the difference in the razor-thin race that ended with Bush defeating Democrat Al Gore. “Voters who don’t do their homework don’t realize that divided government is a recipe for gridlock. Gridlock can be good on some foreign issues, such as if you have a peace Congress blocking Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney on war in Iraq. But on domestic issues, gridlock solves nothing.”

John Gimas doesn’t see it that way. He served in a divided New Hampshire state government a decade ago — he was a Democratic representative when Republicans held the legislature and a Democrat was governor — and the experience persuaded him that split control prevented either party from pushing the state too far in either direction.

Now a Republican, Gimas said a divided federal government both serves as a check on excessive power and forces both sides “to compromise and work together.”

Voter optimism about making the two parties deal with each other reflects the confidence that financial markets have shown in divided rule. Wall Street has for many years rewarded the division of power in Washington and some financial industry observers said the upcoming period of split control is likely to lead to spending controls and higher domestic oil production — moves that could ease inflation, as Tigress Financial Partners analyst Ivan Feinseth said last week. “History has shown that split power in Washington, with the opposite party of the president controlling Congress, is a strong background for share price gains,” Feinseth wrote in an analysis.

Even if voters don’t necessarily choose divided government consciously, “most Americans want a check on unbridled power, on a government that thinks they have a mandate that they don’t really have,” said John Feehery, a Washington lobbyist and longtime aide to House Republicans such as former speaker Dennis Hastert and former majority whip Tom DeLay.

The next two years won’t bring “broad ideological victories for either side,” he said, “but there could be some compromises on things like immigration because the system is so broken.”

The country’s divisions remain deep and abiding, and hard-liners in both parties reflect a skepticism about compromise that’s been growing on both ends of the ideological spectrum, but Feehery can see a split government finding its way toward action against inflation with legislation that perhaps also addresses other big problems.

“Ultimately, divided government is a way to get both sides invested in compromise,” he said — if public opinion can be rallied in support of any bipartisan initiatives.

In Columbia, S.C., Republican banker Gloria Humphreys is ready for that. She said she voted for Republican candidates this month to say no to the “totally partisan” doomsayers and express her optimism that the economy can be improved.

“That’s all you hear, that if you vote Republican, oh my God, the world’s gonna end,” she said. At 65, she said, she voted against the Democrats because “with my 401K, I’m going to be working until I’m 80-something.”

Yet she remains hopeful about the direction of the country, even in a divided Washington. The prospect of congressional gridlock doesn’t rattle her, at least, “not as much as having a free blank check to write,” she said. Elections are Americans’ corrective medicine, Humphreys said, and she trusts them to get it right: “Our democracy is what we’re doing here. We’re voting. That’s democracy.”

Julian Mark in Washington; Steven N. Burkholder in New Britain, Conn.; Nathaniel Herz in Anchorage; Marisa Iati in Manchester, N.H.; Brittany Shammas in West Des Moines, Iowa; and Rodney Welch in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign on Tuesday, experts helped us game out what would happen if he wins again.

Key issue: Abortion rights advocates scored major victories in the first nationwide election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Here’s how abortion access fared on the ballot in nine states.

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