The purpose of this essay will be to discuss the concept of a divided government within the confines of the separation of powers outlined in the United States Constitution. In order to begin, we must understand why the Founders of the Constitution instituted these checks and balances in the first place. America had just overthrown an oppressive government with massive centralize power and authority, after years of costly war (both in lives and money). The Founders wanted to ensure that no single person or branch of government would ever become capable of recreating the tyranny in which they had just escaped. The best way to ensure that each branch of government's powers would not become oppressive was to establish checks and balances of power that allowed other branches of government to slow or completely halt opposing branch actions. As James Madison wrote, "[a]mbition must be made to counter ambition" (John, 2011), which I believe he meant that it would be in the best interest of all branches of government to limit the powers of the each other. For example, as a member of Congress it behooves a person to keep the other branches of government limited in scope and power, because if they were to grow more powerful, their power could then exceed your own. I believe that Madison was speaking about individuals doing what is in their own best interest, which is all that one can really expect another to do.
Each branch of government has clearly identified powers and authority identified and granted by the Constitution. To name a few, Congress has the power of the purse, can write laws and declare war. The President has the power to sign a bill sent from Congress into the law, is the commander in-chief of the armed forces and can veto bills written by Congress. The judiciary has the power nullify laws, determine the Constitutionality of laws and prosecute/punish individuals in violation of laws. As Daniel P. Franklin wrote in Policy Point-Counterpoint: Is Divided Government Good For The United States, "The separation of powers design built into the U.S. Constitution guarantees a level of inefficiency in government that is breathtaking at times, especially in an era of divided government" (Franklin, 2011). With that said, what is the political landscape that we have seen as a result of these checks and balances? The political party system, which has arguably been the single most dividing force in American politics.
But is government division a bad thing or a good thing? I would argue is is not only good, but it is necessary to ensure liberty. This is because the checks and balances are only effective against tyranny if there is division within the government. For example, if the President wanted to become an Emperor and Congress wrote a law or amended the Constitution in such a way to make it possible, then we would go from a Republican form of government to an Empire essentially overnight. Now, obviously this situation is extreme, but it illustrates the point of how division in government is used to prevent such a thing. In the real world, it would likely not be in Congress' best interest to relinquish their power to an all powerful executive, which means that it is less likely to happen.
The bottom line is that was more important to ensure that the federal government did not become the leviathan that we had just struggled to free ourselves from than to expedite the governing process. Our Founders were very concerned about the natural tendency of governments to centralize and grow in power. They did everything they could to ensure the longevity of the Republic, but the rest is up to us!
John, C. (2011). DIVIDED WE FALL: THE CASE AGAINST DIVIDED GOVERNMENT. International Social Science Review, 86(3/4), 166-174.
Franklin, D. P. (2011). POLICY POINT-COUNTERPOINT: IS DIVIDED GOVERNMENT GOOD FOR THE UNITED STATES?. International Social Science Review, 86(3/4), 160-162.