Divided Government — The Choice between Governing or Chaos

This paper is part of an initiative from the Peterson Foundation to help illuminate and understand key fiscal and economic questions facing America. See more papers in the Expert Views: Bipartisan Policymaking under Divided Government series.

By Leon E. Panetta

Feb 2, 2023


In order to fully understand the challenge of bipartisan policymaking under a divided government, it is important to place this issue in the context of both history and current events. My approach in this essay is to describe that history, my experiences with the legislative process as a member of Congress and the executive branch, to look at current events and politics, and determine whether divided government can choose between governing and chaos. Democracy has been and always will be an experiment in the process of governing. That makes it messy, frustrating and unpredictable. It is dependent on the quality of leadership elected by the voters. Those leaders are elected because they are able to communicate to their constituencies that they are the best candidate for the office. Some believe that they should only vote the will of the voters. Others believe in the words of the great English parliamentarian Edmund Burke that leaders are elected to exercise their own conscience of what is right or wrong. Between those poles, democracy struggles to work. Precisely because it is an experiment, it requires our understanding, patience and respect.


Our forefathers understood that the key to a stable democracy rested on the ability of elected officials to disagree on issues, freely debate these differences, and ultimately find consensus on a way forward. That was the process they followed in putting together the Constitution. They did not want to centralize power in any one branch of government — that was the fundamental lesson learned from the abuses of kings, the failures of parliament, and the injustices of a star chambered court. The system of checks and balances was intended to limit power, to force compromise, and to give the people the ultimate check on power through the ballot box.

The purpose of electing people to public office is to govern — to make the tough choices, to take the risks, to resolve differences and to enact policies that strengthen the nation. Those unwilling to compromise in any way bear responsibility for the chaos and violence that can result. Over the 240 years of American history, we have survived because there were leaders that believed in a system where we have the freedom to embrace the clash of ideas and the courage to find consensus. In a democracy, we govern either by leadership or crisis. When the nation was unable to resolve the dilemma of slavery in a country pledged to the belief that we were all created equal, division led to a bloody civil war. President Lincoln tried to bind the wounds from that war with “malice toward none” but the division based on race persisted. It took over a 100 years for both political parties to enact civil right laws to confront discrimination in our society, promote equal voting rights and give everyone a chance at the American dream. Consensus takes time.

The story of our nation is not just the clash of ideas and the effort to find consensus, it is the constant tension between democracy and the forces that resist change in an open society. But change is inevitable and democracy is at its best when it can adjust to change in ways that make the nation stronger. For that process to work effectively, it demands the ability to listen, to understand human relationships, to respect the dignity and right of each individual to view life through their own eyes and circumstances, but to be flexible enough to know that the right solution may not necessarily be what you believe, but what works. That process is at the heart of governing and can determine whether democracy can survive the divisions that constantly threaten the stability our forefathers sought to achieve in the Constitution.


In over my 50 years of public life, I have seen Washington at its best and at its worst. The good news is that I have seen Washington work. In 1966, when I left the Army after two years of service, I had the opportunity to go to Washington as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Tom Kuchel from California. Kuchel was a moderate Republican in the tradition of Hiram Johnson who served as Governor of California and supported reforms in government and protections for workers and monitories. When I arrived in Washington, Kuchel was serving as the minority whip under the then minority leader Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois.

At the time, there were a number of moderate Republicans in the Senate. Besides Kuchel, there were Senators like Jacob Javits of New York, Clifford Case of New Jersey, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, George Aiken of Vermont, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, Mark Hatfield of Oregon and others. They worked closely with Democrats like Senators Mike Mansfield of Montana, Henry Jackson of Washington, Bill Fulbright of Arkansas, Dick Russell of Georgia, Sam Ervin of North Carolina, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, Phil Hart of Michigan and other outstanding statesmen. Of course, they had their political differences but they worked together when it came to issues facing the country. The result was landmark legislation in education, environment, civil rights, Medicare and national security among others.

When I was elected to Congress in 1976, Tip O’Neill was the speaker — a Democrat’s Democrat from Boston Massachusetts. But he had a great relationship with the minority leaders — John Rhoads of Arizona and after him, Bob Michel of Illinois. Again, they had their political differences and fought each other in elections but when it came to issues affecting the country, they worked together whether it was a Democratic or Republican President. During the Reagan Administration, Democrats and Republicans worked together to pass social security reform — the third rail of politics; comprehensive immigration reform, major tax reform that made the tax system both fairer and more simple and worked on budgets together. During the first Bush Administration, when I was Chairman of the House Budget Committee, I spent almost 3 weeks working with Republican, Democratic Leaders and Administration Cabinet members to adopt and pass a $500 billion deficit reduction package. That budget combined with a similar deficit reduction package passed in the Clinton Administration resulted in a balanced federal budget and federal surplus.

I served as both OMB Director and Chief of Staff to President Clinton. Although he was elected in 1992 with a Democratic Congress, in the midterms of 1994, Democrats lost both the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. President Clinton was initially despondent that he would be unable to get anything done with a divided government, particularly with a House led by Speaker Gingrich who had run on his “Contract for America”. There were two important events that occurred that shifted the momentum back to the President.

First, the Republicans in the House decided to challenge the President on his budget by demanding large cuts in Medicare. During negotiations with the Republican leadership, the President refused to go as far as the Republicans wanted on Medicare cuts. As a result, the Republicans shut the government down. As benefits were stopped to important constituencies, the political consequences impacted on the Republicans. The Senate, led by Senator Bob Dole, decided it was time to fund the government. The debacle over the budget badly hurt the trust in Republican leadership.

Second, when the bombing took place of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the President provided strong leadership in calming the public, expressing the condolences of a nation, and in the investigation and bringing to justice of those domestic terrorists involved. The public responded to Clinton’s unique ability to express the sorrow of the nation.

In light of these and other events, the Republicans decided it made more sense to work with the Administration on areas they could find consensus. The result was bipartisan agreement on welfare reform, children’s’ health, and a balanced federal budget. These successes plus Clinton’s ability to define his goals for the nation led to his reelection.

Unfortunately, what followed in Washington was a period of increased partisanship and gridlock with partisan investigations and impeachment efforts. Although 9/11 provided a short respite of bipartisan unity, Republicans and Democrats were unable to agree on critical issues related to the economy, the budget, immigration, health care and infrastructure funding. President Trump added to the friction by his refusal to expand his base of support and unify the country. Instead, he further divided the parties and the nation. His refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. The failure to hold the President accountable represented the low point of divided government and the inability of both parties to work together to govern the nation at a crucial moment in history.


With the inauguration of President Joe Biden, he pledged to not only restore the values of the Presidency but to unify the country and to work with both political parties to resolve the critical issues facing the country. It was the difference between a President with over 40 years of experience in Washington legislating on major issues and a President who lacked any experience in elective office and largely governed by chaos. Biden’s experience began to pay off.

Over the last two years, there have been a number of examples of bipartisan cooperation even amid the lingering trauma and division from the January 6 attack at the Capitol. Those efforts included the overhaul of the archaic law on election procedures that President Trump tried to manipulate to remain in power; a measure that mandated federal recognition of same sex marriages; a $1 trillion infrastructure law, a climate, health and tax law; and more than $100 billion in aid to Ukraine in its war against Russia; and a bipartisan industrial policy bill. In December Republicans and Democrats agreed to a $1.7 trillion spending package that avoided a government shutdown. The fact is that over the last two years, both parties have been willing to work together to solve more problems than any other session in modern congressional history.

In many ways, the 2022 Midterm election was an affirmation by over 100 million voters that they want Republicans and Democrats to work together. Voters from both parties and independents rejected extremism, defeated election deniers, and urged both Democrats and Republicans to govern together. The election made clear that a majority of the American people want the democratic process to work.


There is no question that the recent prolonged conflict over the election of Speaker does not bode well for divided government in this Congress. It is clear that a small group of extreme Republican members are prepared to shut down government in order to get their way. More importantly, they have extracted concessions from the new Speaker that virtually tie his hands when it comes to exercising leadership. To allow one member to force a vote on the fate of the Speaker guarantees chaos. So the Speaker faces a dilemma — get nothing done if he is constantly held hostage by the Freedom Caucus or try and build a bipartisan consensus on key issues that is willing to vote to protect the Speaker if necessary. It will be a difficult challenge for divided government in the House.

At the same time, there is hope for divided government in the Senate. There are a large number of both Democratic and Republican Senators that have proven that they are willing to work together to do the business of the nation. There are opportunities in this new Congress to work with the Administration to legislate on a few critical issues: immigration reform, controlling crime, restoring a budget process that promotes fiscal discipline as part of the answer to inflation, passing a farm bill that increases food supplies for the world, and strengthening our defense forces and our support for Ukraine. If a majority of responsible Republican and Democratic members on the House side are willing to be part of these efforts, they have the votes to isolate the extremist and pass bipartisan legislation.

Of course, none of this will be easy. It never is. But if all members truly want to restore trust in regular order, and in the committee process, they can make the legislative process work. I have seen it work. Giving each member a chance to be part of the legislative process where votes determine success or failure on amendments goes to the heart of the legislative process. Members have to trust that the process can work and the public has to trust that it is the best way to govern. In the end, this is not a choice between governing or chaos — it is a choice about whether our democracy will succeed or fail.

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About the Author

Leon E. Panetta co-founded The Panetta Institute for Public Policy with his wife Sylvia in 1997 upon completion of his service as White House chief of staff in the Bill Clinton administration. He co-directed it with her until 2009, when he left to serve as CIA director and then secretary of defense under President Obama. He returned to the Institute as chairman in 2013.

A Monterey native and Santa Clara University School of Law graduate, Secretary Panetta began his long and distinguished public service career in 1964 as a U.S. Army intelligence officer, receiving the Army Commendation Medal. Upon discharge he went to work in Washington as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senate minority whip Tom Kuchel of California. In 1969, he was appointed director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, where he was responsible for ensuring equal opportunity in public education, and later he served as executive assistant to the mayor of New York City. He then returned to Monterey, where he practiced law until his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1976.

Serving his Central Coast district in Congress for sixteen years, Secretary Panetta became a respected leader on agriculture, federal budget, ocean and healthcare issues and from 1989 to 1993 he chaired the House Budget Committee. He won passage of the Hunger Prevention Act of 1988, Medicare and Medicaid coverage of hospice care for the terminally ill, and numerous measures to protect the California coast, including creation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

In 1993, Secretary Panetta left Congress to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget for the incoming Clinton administration. There, he was instrumental in developing the policies that led to a balanced federal budget and eventual budget surpluses. In 1994, he accepted appointment as the president’s chief of staff, and is credited with bringing order and focus to White House operations and policy making.

Upon leaving the Clinton administration in 1997, Secretary Panetta joined with his wife Sylvia to establish and co-direct The Panetta Institute for Public Policy, based at California State University, Monterey Bay. Reflecting the Secretary’s ideals and personal example, the nonpartisan, not-for-profit study center seeks to attract thoughtful men and women to lives of public service and prepare them for the policy challenges of the future.

Secretary Panetta returned to public service at the start of the Barack Obama administration as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he supervised the operation to find and bring international terrorist Osama bin Laden to justice. Then, as Secretary of Defense, he led efforts to develop a new defense strategy, conduct critical counter terrorism operations, strengthen U.S. alliances, and open military service opportunities to Americans regardless of gender or sexual orientation. He chronicles his life in public service in his best-selling memoir Worthy Fights, which was published by Penguin Press in 2014.

Over the years Secretary Panetta has served on numerous boards and commissions. He co-chaired California Forward, the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative and Governor Schwarzenegger’s Council on Base Support and Retention. In 2006, he served on the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan national commission seeking a new course for the war in Iraq. At present, he serves on the boards of directors for Oracle and Blue Shield of California. He serves as co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Defense Personnel Task Force and the Center for Strategic and International Studies Commission on Countering Violent Extremism.

Secretary Panetta is the recipient of hundreds of awards and honors. Recent examples include California Forward’s Forward Thinker Award; the California Teachers Association’s Friends of Education Award; the Judicial Council of California’s Stanley Mosk Defender of Justice Award; The Harry S. Truman Good Neighbor Award; the Sons of Italy Foundation’s National Education & Leadership Award; the Peter Benchley Ocean Award for “Excellence in Policy”; the Intelligence and National Security Alliance’s William Oliver Baker Award; the Italian Community Services’ Distinguished Service Award; The OSS Society’s William J. Donovan Award; and the National Defense Industrial Association’s Dwight D. Eisenhower Award.

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