Ask Civics 101: What Happens When One Party Controls The Presidency And Congress? | New Hampshire Public Radio

Ask Civics 101: What Happens When One Party Controls The Presidency And Congress?

Jan 13, 2021

Today we're answering a question about party control of government. What happens when one party controls the presidency as well as both chambers of Congress? Listen to this short episode, or read on for the answer.

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Unified Control

Once President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on January 20th, the Democratic Party will control the House, the Senate, and the presidency. Political scientists refer to this as “unified control.” Most recently the United States was under unified control for the first half of Donald Trump’s term. However, after the 2018 midterm elections the Democratic Party gained a large number of seats in the House of Representatives, putting us into what is called “divided government.”

How common is this?

In modern politics, divided government is the norm. Of the last 50 years, only 14 of them have been under unified control. However, prior to the 1960s, the opposite was true. Some politicians decried divided government because the voters couldn’t determine who to blame for inaction. President Woodrow Wilson said of divided government, “…how is the schoolmaster, the nation, to know which boy needs the whipping?”

This sentiment of not knowing who to blame for unpopular policies is still prevalent today. In the presidential debate last October, Donald Trump and Joe Biden both blamed the other party for the lack of passage of a coronavirus relief package.

The pros and cons of both systems

In a system of unified control, it is much easier to pass legislation. As a result, regardless of which party is in charge, government spending is significantly higher. And there is no division of responsibility, so if a piece of legislation is passed that is unpopular with the voting public, that can result in the people choosing new members of Congress in the next election. For example, when Obamacare (which was unpopular to many voters at the time) was passed in 2010 under a Democratic-led unified government, the GOP gained control of the House shortly thereafter. 

Supporters of divided government align it with central tenets of our democracy; separation of powers and checks and balances. The branches of government check each other, but so too do the parties.

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