The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment


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Mayhew notes that most important legislation in the postwar period, laws, passed with either two-thirds support or bipartisan majorities. He observes that Congress, contrary to its reputation, is more of a problem-solving institution than we often think simply because most of its members are committed to the ideal of making good public policy, as well as to the goals of getting re-elected and achieving influence within Congress.

Also, legislation doesn't come easily. To sustain a bill through all the veto points in the process requires legislative leaders to fashion majorities much larger than 51 percent. Presidential skill, furthermore, doesn't neatly coincide with unified government; it can be found during divided government, as Reagan, Nixon, and Eisenhower showed. External events that demand problem-solving do not coincide systematically with unified or divided government.

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Finally, in a serious discussion of a phenomenon often dismissed by political scientists as being too soft for analysis, Mayhew shows that public moods demanding strong government span periods of both divided and unified government. There are constant policy making pressures in Washington, surges of activism, often that last many years. Over the long run, both factors favor a rather high level of activism and policy making, divided government or not.

Is this view of the matter dispositive? Not wholly. Consider budget legislation in the s. For many, the failure of government to match revenues with expenditures is the signal failure of divided government Democrats successfully defending outlays and Republicans successfully cutting taxes.

However, while divided government in the s made this straddle possible, no such fiscal default occurred during the sixteen years of cumulative divided government under Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, or Ford. The new element that associated divided government with fiscal excess in the s was the fierce Republican embrace of what George Bush once aptly called "voodoo economics.

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On the spending side, Mathew McCubbins' article in the Cox and Kernell volume written in the spirit of the volume's persistent focus on parties focuses on party conflict in a "bi-lateral veto game" and its resolution. He conceptually strips spending politics down to a stylized conflict over two types of programs, domestic spending and defense spending. Democrats preferred increases in one and reductions in the other, and vice versa for Republicans. The outcome is basic game theory: since neither side could get its first preference more for its side, less for the other side , they both agreed on the second preference more for both sides.

The result, of course, was persistent, upward pressure on the deficit.

Presidency of Harry S. Truman

Historically, Mayhew finds no such clear relationships between divided government and fiscal imbalance. But McCubbins' emphasis on defensive partisan behavior in a fragmented system nicely captures the dynamic of fiscal blockage, at least in the supply-side era. Startled by the results of the elections, Democrats sought to shore up business support for the next election. Both parties competed to take credit for a supply-side bill that would spark economic recovery, setting off an infamous "bidding war" that would have been improbable in a unified government. He estimates that about 90 percent of lost revenue over the s due to tax cuts is attributable to ERTA.

Given Reagan's resoluteness in blocking major tax increases, divided government made it impossible to recover lost revenue. Modest income and corporate tax increases as well as a large increase in Social Security taxes occurred, but tax legislation after tended toward "revenue neutrality. D ivided government from to invited, in other words, complicated patterns of "gaming" between the two parties on spending and taxing that, in turn, created a chronic deficit problem.


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Its real economic consequences are still being debated periodic fiscal imbalance has been common in U. But in the current era of government-bashing and festering economic and social problems, fiscal imbalance has symbolized government failure. Increased public cynicism has probably been reinforced by the savings-and-loan scandal, a colossal case of bipartisan failure. In a lucid, sobering treatment of the "thrift debacle" in the Alesina and Carliner volume, Barry Weingast and Thomas Romer show convincingly the bipartisan, political origins of the crisis, emphasizing incentives and informational biases.

The public was ill-equipped to assess the issue and was not cohesively organized as the thrift industry was. Since every member of Congress had many thrifts in his or her district or state, Congress tended to accept the available arguments. These favored, first, deregulation and, later, forbearance letting the industry take time to work its way out of its difficulties. Explicit treatment of divided government plays little role in the Weingast-Romer analysis. But their own account hints that Congress and the administration jointly delayed remedial action because they feared raising taxes or worsening the budget deficit itself partly the product of divided government.

Both public deliberation and accountability suffered as a result of a blame-avoidance game. On balance, the contribution of divided government to policy inaction and flawed legislation from to across many policy domains is hard to prove, just as Mayhew says. But from on its contribution to economic mismanagement gets stronger, a point broadly consistent with more pessimistic analyses, such as Ginsberg and Shefter's Politics By Other Means. D ivided government has also been blamed for foreign policy incoherence. During the Iran-contra hearings, former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane cited the Boland Amendment prohibiting aid to the contras as destructive foreign policy meddling.

First Congress drew the line here, then it drew the line there. Circumventing Congress came easily for who knew what Congress wanted? Yet the problem with the general argument of foreign policy incoherence, as Mayhew points out, is that the country is never unified for long on foreign policy, even under unified government.

Divided government may well add healthy checks and balances as both the contras and the Sandinista party know. In fact, divided government has often been associated with initiatives now recognized as statesmanlike, the most famous case being the Marshall Plan, launched during the "do-nothing" read Republican-controlled 80th Congress. There is simply no way, using any imaginable set of criteria, to judge foreign policies produced since under unified control as being consistently superior to those fashioned under divided control. Ginsberg and Shefter argue that divided government in the s encouraged "politics by other means.

If interest groups couldn't rally voters, they could buy elected officials. In time, the public reasonably drew unflattering inferences about people inside the Beltway: a plague on both their houses. For some observers of American politics, a continuing round of ethics scandals feeds the kind of paranoia about government that Oliver Stone exploited with "JFK," a plausible point about the political origins of public cynicism.

Equally serious, a certain administrative incoherence and timidity can set in. Administrators, wary of scandal, became excessively cautious. Appointments go unfilled, and talented people take a pass on a job offer because of some youthful indiscretion that could invite smears long afterwards.

There are, then, three related claims about scandal-mongering. Divided government increases the rate of political scandal; that in turn increases public cynicism and hobbles government's ability to implement policy.

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But the rate of scandal-making does not vary systematically across periods of unified and divided government. Mayhew counted for the period the number of days that the congressional committee investigations of the presidency, or executive response, were featured on the front page of The New York Times. There is no systematic relationship between periods of unified or divided government none at all. Capitol Hill launches investigations for at least two other reasons, factional and constitutional.

Indeed, as Mayhew points out, a period of unified government can be associated with investigations that set the stage for tensions in a particular administrative or policy domain that will last for decades.


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  • If so, the case for a relationship between divided government and public cynicism and administrative incoherence is weak. Scandals during both divided and unified government often reflect constitutionally mandated tensions. The Watergate and Iran-contra affairs, both associated with divided government, of course had political dimensions. But they also dealt with quite serious constitutional issues. Moreover, to dismiss recent crises of government as mere "scandals" is to trivialize the stakes. In Watergate and Iran-contra, or in lesser imbroglios, crimes and misdemeanors against democratic government all demanded scrutiny and response.

    The rate of congressional investigation in the post-World War II period and probably the pre-World War II period is at best only weakly correlated with partisan divided government. Party factions will go after one another as easily as different parties. And concerned congressional leaders will walk away from party loyalty toward the Constitution. Death of Responsible Party Politics. An article of faith among most political scientists is the unimportance of parties within the Congress.

    As subcommittees and staff proliferated, abetted by the collapse of deference to leadership or any commitment to apprenticeship, such irrelevance grew. Congress is therefore unruly, hence the recurrent magazine covers picturing Congress as a baby in diapers. Mayhew summed it up best, in an earlier, well-known book, Congress: The Electoral Connection : "No theoretical treatment of the United States Congress that posits parties as analytic units will go very far President Bush has set a modern record of thirty-one vetoes in fewer than four years. This has only sharpened the sense that running Congress is not an advantage for the Democrats as a party, and that minority status in the House has transformed Republicans into a kind of Weather Underground in suits.

    Committee barons freelance, Speaker Foley lacks fire in the belly, and everyone hustles money, subverting the party's historic social commitments. Meanwhile Newt Gingrich plots the fall of the Republic, or at least of the Congress. There are two claims here: divided government thwarts partisan cohesion, organizationally and programmatically, and it intensifies illegitimate free-lancing, legislatively and in congressional campaign finance or in a poisonous blend of the two.

    But this picture is also overstated, or just plain wrong. Rohde's finely counterintuitive analysis shows that party government is alive and well in the House of Representatives since the reforms of the late s and early s. His work is part of a renewed interest in congressional parties that can also be found in the Cox and Kernell and Alesina and Carliner volumes.

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    Rohde demonstrates a marked increase in party government in the House and Senate. To be sure, notwithstanding structural changes in legislative party cohesion, a Speaker's style can matter enormously. Speaker Wright was a strong partisan and Foley a relatively weak one. But, on the whole, far from weakening the Democrats and Republicans as coherent legislative parties, divided government has been associated with a strengthening.

    The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment
    The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment
    The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment
    The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment
    The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment
    The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment
    The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment
    The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government: A Postwar Assessment

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