Divided government: more pluses than minuses

THE 99th Congress has commenced work, while at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the President has been formally installed for a second term. And already, concern is being expressed about executive and legislative branch ``deadlock.'' The fear is that swift and coherent action, especially on the deficit, will not be possible because of divided governmental control. The arguments are familiar: Though Ronald Reagan won reelection last November by an overwhelming majority, the Democrats picked up two seats in the Senate and lost ground only modestly in the House, leaving them stronger overall than they were after Mr. Reagan's first victory. And looking at 1986, when 22 of them are up for reelection, Senate Republicans are restive and independent-minded. The ``window'' to coherent policy initiatives is open narrowly and for just a few months. It is likely this window will close before much has happened, leaving the country in gridlock and drift. National policy will once again be a casualty to the American system of government which so divides power.

In a recent publication, the Brookings Institution's James L. Sundquist argues that the present situation is but another chapter in a long book. Separation of powers, whereby Congress and the president are separately elected and operate with full constitutional independence of one another, inevitably frustrates action on the tough issues of the time. President Reagan now blames the Congressional Democrats for the deficit, who in turn blame him. ``And both sides were largely right in denying responsibility, because in truth nobody was responsible.'' Power is just too fractured and checked in the American constitutional system. ``There may not be much that even a superman could do,'' Sundquist concludes.

Were James Madison and the other founders in fact wrong, or at least shortsighted, when they made separation of powers the essential, distinguishing core of the American Constitution? Debate on this question has gone on for nearly a century, at least since political scientist Woodrow Wilson advanced an argument much like the one political scientist James Sundquist makes today.

This debate should hinge on answers to two key questions which can both be addressed empirically:

Is the present system biased for certain partisan or philosophic interests against others?

Does it work to thwart the general public interest?

From Franklin Roosevelt's second term through John Kennedy's presidency, many observers thought that the answer to the first question was yes. The Democrats were winning national popular majorities much of the time, but as the institutional critics saw things, once in office they could not deliver the policies the public had mandated. The immediate culprit was seen to be a ``conservative coalition'' of Republicans and Southern Democrats, who were able to seize upon the various institutional arrangements of our separated, checked, and balanced system to hamstring FDR and his successors.

But if, as late as 1963, it was still at least superficially plausible to argue that separation of powers aided minoritarian conservatives in thwarting a popular liberal majority, represented by the national Democratic Party, such an interpretation seems exceedingly hard to justify after the experiences of the last 20 years. Congress's independence was hailed by many in both parties during the Watergate era. And when Americans began electing activist conservatives to the presidency, Democrats seized gratefully on the bailiwicks that separation of powers had left them, to resist presidential initiatives. The experience of the last half-century seems clear: Both parties have had ample occasion to welcome the resources that separation of powers provides; and the latter has effectively served the partisan and philosophic ``underdogs'' of the moment.

It may be that the ``public interest'' is not being served. The first response here is that the American people don't see it this way. Every time they are asked, in whatever fashion, they answer that they like the present system just fine, thank you. Do you mind an arrangement, pollsters ask, where one party controls the presidency and the other, one or both houses of Congress? Not at all, the people say. Perhaps their most eloquent statement came a half-century ago, and involved Franklin Roosevelt's celebrated ``court packing'' plan. FDR had been reelected for a second term in November 1936 by one of the largest margins in American history, and his Democratic Party won overwhelming majorities in Congress. Frustrated by Supreme Court actions in declaring unconstitutional some of the most important legislation of his administration's first years, Roosevelt decided in early 1937 that he had an unequivocal mandate to end the court's ``obstructionism.''

He asked Congress to approve a reorganization act that would add a new Supreme Court justice whenever one of the sitting justices reached the age of 70 and did not retire. No one doubted that FDR's objective was not to increase efficiency but to obtain new seats that could be filled with pro-New Deal appointees. Roosevelt's attempt failed spectacularly, eventually getting voted down by a Senate that the President's party controlled 5 to 1. FDR lost the court-packing battle because the populace -- including segments most supportive of him -- was firmly committed to the independence of the three branches. Two-thirds of those polled nationally by Gallup in late February and early March 1937 wanted Congress to reject Roosevelt's plan.

Americans still display a deep regard for separation of powers. But is their faith misplaced? Here, I think we need to draw on the lessons of comparative politics. Most democracies do not have anything like the American system of divided, separated authority. Is there any indication in the wealth of cross-national experience that the greater centralization of authority most other democracies provide for helps them get sounder, more coherent policy? Obviously this big, complex question cannot be answered easily, but my reading of the data strongly suggests that the answer is no.

James Madison certainly would not have been surprised by my conclusion. Madisonianism rested on the assumption that coherent control over government by any party or collection of interests would often lead to disaster -- because (1) the ruling group would attend unduly to its narrow interests, and (2) because much of the time it wouldn't have the wisdom to make good policy choices. Hence, ignorance must be made to counterbalance ignorance. Overall the public interest would best be served, Madison insisted, by an institutional arrangement ordaining governmental pluralism and requiring compromise and adjustment among the principal interests making up the society.

But again, our best guide is actual modern experience. Britain and France give their governments much greater authority to put their programs into action. Is the public interest thus served better than by the US system of divided power? Is there any other arrangement whose track record suggests that, if used in the United States, it might protect minority interests and advance sound policy better than the system Madison devised? If so, where is it? If not, why should we take seriously the continuing groanings over the ``burden'' that separation of powers makes US government bear. Separation of powers obviously has its frustrations. But isn't it just possible that -- for America at least -- the necessity of inter-branch adjustment and compromise is not an impediment to wise policy, but overall its best guarantor?

Everett C. Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut.

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