It’s hard to ignore an article headline like “Worst. Congress. Ever.”. Indeed, this controversial headline captured my attention this summer and has provided part of the basis for my research paper. The headline comes from an article in Foreign Policy by Norman Ornstein (see here), where he argues that the current period of divided government is possibly one of the worst in American history. Ornstein asserts that the level of dysfunction of our current divided government is not typical, and most concerning – that it is likely to continue into the near future. Ornstein and others who agree with him, point to the phenomenon of the “permanent campaign” mentality and increasing party polarization (resulting in intense partisan disagreement) as factors that distinguish our current divided government as one of the worst ever.
I’m intrigued by this assertion, especially in the context of what the political science literature has to offer on the subject of divided government. Political scientists’ research has run contrary to conventional wisdom, which assumes that our government functions more effectively during periods of unified government (when one political party controls both the presidency and Congress). Political scientists, such as David Mayhew in Divided We Govern, have found that while divided governments might have the appearance of gridlock, their legislative productivity is not significantly affected compared to periods of unified government.
In my paper, I hope to investigate whether the current period of divided government challenges our traditional understanding of the impacts of divided government. Is the 112th Congress, under Barack Obama’s presidency, truly one of the most dysfunctional in history? How does it compare to other periods of divided government in American history? If it is different from other periods, what factors have led to its dysfunction? And what institutional reforms might address these factors?
I recognize that my research question poses a challenge in the sense that it will be hard to judge the current period of divided government, since it might be too early to draw assessments with a remainder of President Obama’s term still yet to unfold under divided government. However, I hope to examine specific incidents such as the debt ceiling debate and see if the current political science literature could have predicted or explained the debt ceiling debate’s outcome.