A House Undivided

The Pros and Cons of Democratic Legislative and Executive Branches


Photo from The White House

The American Legislature.

The Pros of Democratic Legislative and Executive Branches

Joe Biden’s electoral victory in November 2020 ensured that executive power would shift back into the hands of the Democratic Party. Then, after the unprecedented blue shift in the Georgia runoffs, the Democrats took control of the Senate. As the legislative and executive branches turn blue again, Americans are left to speculate how effective and representative the government will be. One party control over two branches of government can certainly streamline government and make it easier to pass legislation, but does it eclipse the other party’s view? 

In recent years, the United States government has trended towards gridlock and away from bipartisanship and compromise. The reasons for this are often obvious: fundraising needs, support for reelection, and continually polarizing party views. However, the result is almost always a paralyzing inability to pass legislation if your party does not have control over Congress. 

Political gridlock in the legislature also leads to the executive branch turning to executive orders instead of enduring the long and often futile process of trying to pass a law. President Obama experienced this during his presidency; when Senator Mitch McConnell vowed to be the “grim reaper” of the Senate and block all progressive legislation, Obama turned to executive orders. Later, in the 2018 midterms, the Republican Party was unable to maintain a majority in the House of Representatives, flipping the House to the Democrats. Consequently, President Trump also turned to executive orders to overcome the lack of legislative progress the Republican Party could make.

The use of the executive order has long been viewed as a way to circumvent the legislative process, and both Obama and Trump were criticized for the number of executive orders they each signed. However, congressional gridlock made it almost impossible to pass legislation they supported. Executive orders are also less permanent than legislation, since they can be easily reversed by the next administration with a simple signature. 

Having single party control over the legislative and executive branches will reduce the need for executive orders and ensure more legislative progress and a more streamlined government response to crisis situations facing the country, including the COVID pandemic. 

The need for a stable and efficient government has become so much clearer at a time when so many Americans are facing unemployment and financial instability. COVID relief is all the more necessary, and many Americans are in need of a stimulus package. However, the endless debate over how much Americans should receive and who should be able to receive it brought congressional talks to a standstill. A pandemic that continues to surge in the U.S. should incentivize members of Congress to communicate, compromise, and work to provide for its citizens. Clearly, that has not occurred. Americans are still struggling to pay rent and support themselves and their families. 

After the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th, America is also grappling with political violence. The polarization between parties, hateful rhetoric, incessant insults, and misinformation regarding the election circulating in Congress no doubt contributed to the attack on the Capitol. Our country is more divided than ever, and a more streamlined policy process that will get things done and help Americans directly will help the country immensely.

In the long run, it may be beneficial to have a Democratic President and a Republican Congress (or vice versa), providing a check on executive or legislative power. However, today, Congress members vote almost exclusively on party lines, making compromise and debate nearly impossible. Furthermore, as the country grapples with COVID and political violence, it might be necessary to have a more streamlined, efficient, and stable government. 


The Cons of Democratic Legislative and Executive Branches

The United States is an extraordinarily diverse nation, with many competing groups and factions. It’s also home to hundreds of millions of people. Governing such a complex system is far from simple. We are a divided nation, so a divided government provides the most representative, enduring, and stable form.

There are three governing entities in the United States with practical power to enact legislation: The President, the House of Representatives, and the Senate. Many countries only have one such body, but the United States has three, a distinction that was also present when these institutions were present. All three bodies are elected differently. Such a system encourages a split result – nearly every President to enter office with a unified government will lose it within two or four years. 

One of the main critiques of such a divided government is that it creates gridlock. A fair assumption, given that it seems natural that, in a two-party system like ours,  Party A and Party B would not want to give each other any victories. Yet this assumption ignores the reality of how much a party will realistically attempt to push through. The differences in major legislation passed between unified and divided governments is surprisingly narrow. Depending on the definition of “large legislation”, unified government only produces 2-3 (and sometimes fewer) large bills more than a divided government. Statistically this number is almost nothing, and certainly not an unprecedented gridlock. 

The 115th Congress ran from 2016-2017, and featured a complete Republican control of Congress. They passed 18 pieces of major legislation. The 116th Congress ran from 2018-2021. They passed 18 pieces of legislation.

Split government for one Congress, and unified government for the next, in an era that is decried for its excessive polarization. Yet the number of major bills passed was identical. The large bills that are controversial and go viral on social media are largely smoke and mirrors. Much of Congress’s work is not fun or entertaining, and so no one pays attention. This does not make it any less important. If one only pays attention to partisan bills, of course Congress appears gridlocked. It’s only after taking into account the bills, often bipartisan, that functionally serve to run the country rather than pass some ideological purity test does the discrepancy fade. 

Additionally, a split government will pass much more permanent legislation than a divided government. A bill that must have bipartisan support is much more likely to stand when the party in power changes – and the party in power will always change eventually. In this scenario, a split Congress will pass bills that are much more likely to avoid being removed if one party gains unified control. In an era where Presidents use executive orders to fulfill campaign promises with alarming frequency, having bipartisan and stable laws that are not at constant risk of being recalled and totally redone is essential.

Laws passed in a split government are also forced to take input from all sides and perceptive, rather than just the perspective of a party with temporary control of government. This both allows for fuller legislation as well as improved legislation that works for more people. Furthermore, a split government can prevent any massive law that is being pushed for partisan, electoral reasons that actual effectiveness from being enacted, potentially with disastrous consequences. Many Presidents have enacted aggressive legislation while under a split government, most notably Dwight Eisenhower, who made major infrastructure investments. Bills must not just be appealing to one party’s voting base to pass in a divided government, they must also prove their merit to an opposing party. The use of executive orders has increased, and many cite this as evidence of gridlock. But most of these orders are for extremely partisan things, almost all campaign promises that a President feels they must enact to maintain power, such as DACA, or an order authorizing a ridiculously expensive border wall. The rising number of executive orders reflects the increasing desire of politicians to appeal to a base, but not to govern well.  Congress can already govern divided. And if this is the “solution” to divided government, it’s very poor indeed: most executive orders and associated actions die with the administration that enacted them, as a new President can undo them with a stroke of a pen.

Divided government does not produce gridlock in the only area that truly matters: practical, functioning, governing bills. It makes better, fuller, and more enduring laws. Compromise is a core facet of democracy – and this is a system that is designed to promote comprise. It has been done dozens of times in the past, and can easily be done dozens of times in the future. The system works – so why fix what isn’t broken?