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Divided Government: Current and Future Problem?

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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Guest Contributor, In Homeland Security

As President Obama enters the final two years of his eight-year presidency, he does so with an opposing 114th Congress, where both chambers have a Republican Party majority. This is the same situation in reverse that President George W. Bush faced in the last two years of his eight-year presidency, when both chambers of Congress had a Democratic Party majority. So, what can we predict will happen during these next two years in Washington, DC?

To begin, the historical record of a divided government—where the executive branch is controlled by a different political party than the legislative branch of the federal government—hasn’t yielded much resolution on bipartisan issues. In the past, such divided government was seen as beneficial because both sides were perceived as compromising on major issues. In recent years, the general public perception is that divided government creates gridlock; such a division is in full swing with the conservative wing of the Republican Party attempting to negate President Obama’s directions to the Department of Homeland Security regarding illegal immigrants resident in the U.S. by withholding DHS funding. The Democrats in Congress and President Obama will not cave into this type of “legislative blackmail” primarily due to what could follow as a result of such a precedent.

Since World War II, Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George Bush, and now Obama have experienced an opposing Congress. In all but two cases, the president was from the Republican Party and both chambers of Congress were controlled by the Democratic Party (the exceptions were Clinton and Obama).

While President Obama is looking to solidify his historical legacy, the new Republican congressional leadership is unlikely to assist him—as illustrated by the Homeland Security impasse. We have further seen this with the 113th Congress passing the fewest number of bills in U.S. history. So, even if President Obama decided to compromise with the leaders in Congress, reciprocity is unlikely. And, with the advent of the Tea Party, such compromise is even less likely.Divided Government Congress Veto

On the other hand, congressional leaders are anxious to get their own legislative agenda enacted into law. However, they will be stymied by the presidential veto, as delineated in Article I, Section 7, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution. Every bill that passes the House of Representatives and the Senate is sent to the president for approval (i.e., signature). If he does not sign the bill, then it requires a two-thirds vote in the House and also in the Senate to enact the bill into law, to override his veto. When a bill is vetoed, it can become the top congressional priority, setting aside all current legislation. The bottom line is that a presidential veto, historically, is extremely effective at killing congressional legislation. Since 1789, there have been 1,484 vetoes. Of those, only 106 were overridden – a rate of only seven percent. President Obama used his veto power for the first time in five years when he vetoed the Keystone Pipeline Bill on Feb. 24.

However, presidents need to be very judicious about vetoing congressional legislation if they want to maintain higher approval ratings from the public. Historically, Americans hold the president responsible for stopping bills passed by Congress. In President George W. Bush’s final two years in office with an opposing 110th Congress, he issued only 11 vetoes (of which four were overridden). In retrospect, President Reagan issued 78 vetoes (of which nine were overridden) and President George H.W. Bush issued 44 vetoes (of which only one was overridden).

Most of the time, the threat of a presidential veto motivates members of Congress to modify a bill in order to accommodate the president’s desires. That is not the case today. So, instead, more vetoes are expected. However, assessing the political parties of the members of the 114th Congress seems to indicate that it would be difficult at best to override any veto over the next two years. President Obama already stated publicly he will veto any bill that Congress sends him on repealing the Affordable Care Act, or reversing immigration reform (and that’s just a start).

President Obama laid out his agenda for his final two years in office during his State of the Union Address on Jan. 20, 2015. He highlighted issues, such as childcare, paid sick leave, equal pay, minimum wage hikes, free community college, infrastructure repairs, medicine research and tax code modifications, which he said he would champion across the country over the next year or two. However, the possibility that any of these initiatives passes through Congress is highly unlikely due its extreme partisanship.

So, if the president is pushing hard for legislation that will not happen, and Congress is passing bills that the president said he would veto—what is going on? President Obama is protecting the legacy that he created; he is campaigning early to ensure the Democratic nominee will win the 2016 presidential election. This will ensure that his signature programs continue into the future, such as the Affordable Care Act and immigration reform. On the other hand, the Republican-led Congress is also setting the stage for the next election by demonstrating the narrative of an uncooperative president and Democratic Party leading up to the election.

The actual political campaigning for Election 2016 should begin shortly. Get ready!

Note: The opinions and comments stated in the preceding article, and views expressed by any contributor to In Homeland Security, do not represent the views of American Military University, American Public University System, its management or employees.

About the Author
Dr. Schwalbe, Program Director of Political Science at American Public University, retired from the Air Force in 2007 as a colonel after 30 years of active duty service.  He has a Bachelor of Science degree from the Air Force Academy; a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Golden Gate University; a Master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School; a Master’s degree from the Naval War College; and, a PhD from Auburn University in Public Policy.

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