That government is best that governs split

Gov. Roy Cooper’s office has given incentive awards to three manufacturing companies in Halifax County in the past month.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s office has given incentive awards to three manufacturing companies in Halifax County in the past month. tlong@newsobserver.com

North Carolina is one of 16 states currently experiencing a period of divided government. There is a perception that “divided government” (one or both houses of the legislature controlled by one party and the executive by the other party), lends itself to gridlock, frustration, and the counting down of days until one party can unify control and start turning bills into law. However, divided government, particularly at the federal level, was the norm for most of the 20th century, and actually has its share of advantages over one party rule.

Historically, it was rather common to vote for candidates from different parties. In North Carolina, Democrats controlled at least one chamber of the legislature from 1898 until 2010, even though North Carolinians regularly voted for Republican presidential candidates. In today’s age of polarization, where studies consistently show that voters viscerally dislike those who belong to other parties, fewer and fewer voters are splitting their ticket.

But having different branches of government controlled by politicians hailing from opposing parties can produce unexpected benefits.

Take Massachusetts, a deep-blue state, which recently elected Republican governor Charlie Baker. During the campaign, the Boston Globe argued: “One needn’t agree with every last one of Baker’s views to conclude that, at this time, the Republican nominee would provide the best counterpoint to the instincts of an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature.” Mr. Baker now enjoys the highest approval rating of any American governor at above 70 percent.

At the federal level, many of the 20th century’s most celebrated policies came into existence during periods of divided government. During the Nixon years, the president and Congress worked together to enact landmark legislation from the Clean Water Act to the National Cancer Act of 1971.

Compromises between the Democratic executive and a Republican Congress during the Clinton era saw welfare reform enacted and the first balanced budget in a generation. By comparison, after President Bush took office in 2001, the unified government under Republicans saw a return of the deficit. On-paper fiscal restraint, touted by Republicans while campaigning, gave way to largesse in the absence of an opposition legislature.

At the state level, research suggests a comparable number of bills are passed when the executive and legislature are controlled by different parties, casting doubt on the argument that divided government produces stubborn gridlock. New Jersey, for example, made strides in healthcare policy through agreements between a Republican governor and Democratic legislature in the 1990s.

As Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tx.) argued on the Senate floor: “[Divided government] forces us to do something that maybe isn’t our first instinct ... rather than to insist on our way, it forces us to build consensus. ...We can actually do hard things – things that we could never do with a purely one-party government.”

This was an idea the Founders would have signed onto as well. Notoriously fearful of both the concentration of power in one branch of government and the danger of any one faction becoming too powerful, James Madison argued that “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” The Founders must have been onto something; one-party states in other parts of the world tend to be places where corruption and ineptness replace the give-and-take of a healthy democracy.

For everyone bemoaning vetoes, overridden vetoes, and a governor and legislature that seem to have little in common, there is reason to be optimistic. And should North Carolina Democrats gain four seats in the General Assembly or six seats in the Senate, Republicans will no longer be able to override Cooper’s vetoes. We might then start to see the further benefits of those tough compromises that mark a divided government.

Erich Prince, a former Triangle resident, is a writer based in Philadelphia.