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A House Majority … But For How Long

A historically slim House majority in the next Congress could cause a headache for party leaders.

As of this morning, we still do not officially know which party will control the U.S. House of Representatives next year. Nine races still have not been called. The current tally shows Republicans will occupy at least 217 seats and Democrats will hold 209. A party needs 218 seats to claim the majority.

What we do know is that no matter which party has the advantage, it will be a miniscule one — perhaps even just a seat or two. In fact, the margin could be historically slim. What could that mean for policy progress in Washington over the next two years, and is it possible that margin, and even control of Congress, could shift over the next two years, even before the 2024 elections?

Before answering those questions, let’s first look at history.

Narrowest Margins in U.S. House History

The Washington Post’s Gillian Brockwell provided a comprehensive look at the narrowest margins in U.S. House history earlier this week.

The 65th Congress, which sat from early 1917 to early 1919, probably had the narrowest of margins. In fact, on paper it actually looked like Republicans were in charge by one seat. But that session of Congress also included an Independent, one member of the Prohibition Party, three members of the Progressive Party, and a Socialist. When it came to casting ballots for speaker of the House, it actually was a Democrat, Rep. James Beauchamp Clark of Missouri, who prevailed.

According to Brockwell, “The 65th Congress was remarkably productive,” but that was because lawmakers were “united” against a common enemy: Germany, as the United States entered World War I. Democrats and Republicans also united to fight the scourge of alcohol. The members of the 65th Congress approved the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the sale of alcohol.

We have seen a narrowly divided House much more recently. In the 107th Congress, which sat from January 2001 to January 2003, Republicans held just an eight-seat advantage.

Readers will recall that these lawmakers took their seats just one month after the 2000 presidential election between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush was decided by the Supreme Court. Washington was primed for partisanship, but lawmakers managed to enact largely partisan, but historic tax cuts and a bipartisan rewrite of federal education law called The No Child Left Behind Act.

And then the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, happened. Again, lawmakers were united against a common enemy. They approved legislation to create the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, enacted the PATRIOT Act, and supported the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act to allow for construction across major American cities to resume. As Brockwell noted, “The vote margins were overwhelming” in favor of these bills, despite to relatively small GOP majority.

The current Congress, the 117th Congress, also has suffered through one of the narrowest margins in history. While the balance has shifted continuously over the last two years due to retirements and deaths, Democrats started out with just an 11-seat margin. The party used this margin to approve a COVID stimulus bill in the spring of 2021, a once-in-a-generation bill supporting new spending on traditional infrastructure like roads and airports last winter, and the Inflation Reduction Act this summer. Those votes were narrow, but they were significant both in their scope — and the feat it took for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to keep her caucus together.

There is one last House session that had a very narrow margin — and that one certainly deserves its own discussion.

The “Final” Results Are Rarely Final …

According to Brockwell, the 72nd Congress, which sat from early 1931 to 1933, was the wildest in terms of numbers.

“After the midterm election in November 1930, Republicans were set to have a small majority in the House, 218-216, along with one member of a third party,” Brockwell reports. “Then a truly insane thing happened: Between the election and the start of the 72nd Congress in March 1931, 14 members-elect died, including the incumbent speaker, Republican Nicholas Longworth. The resulting special elections to replace them shifted the balance of power to the Democrats, 219-212.”

More than 90 years later, life expectancy is higher and public health is better — but this story illustrates there is precedent for power shifting between parties during a single Congress – or even between Election Day and when the new Congress convenes.

That’s right: even if Republicans have just a one or two seat advantage in January, the outcome from the votes that were cast this past November 8 (and in the weeks before) ultimately may not matter for very long.

Lawmakers retire (and current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may be the first to depart if Democrats do not hold the House). They die. Sometimes they are embroiled in scandals, and other times they leave to take different jobs. (Could President Joe Biden choose a Republican to fill a cabinet vacancy if one should arise? While a GOP lawmaker would be pressured to decline, there is certainly nothing stopping the commander in chief from trying to pick off a Republican seat this way, particularly if that seat is currently filled by a moderate Republican who longer feels welcome in their party.)

Vacancies happen. And in the 117th Congress they happened a lot. In fact, at no point in this current Congress was Speaker Pelosi operating with a full House of 435 members.

Recall that the race for New York’s 22nd Congressional District was not certified until February 2021, at which point Rep. Claudia Tenney, a Republican, took the seat. And Rep.-elect Luke Letlow died on December 19, 2020 — before he could be sworn into office. His wife, Rep. Julia Letlow, took his seat on April 14, 2021. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) resigned from the 117th Congress on January 15, 2021, to go to work in the Biden White House. Rep. Troy Carter (D-La.) was elected April 24, 2021, in a special election and took his seat on May 11, 2021.

In all, there have been 18 vacancies in the 117th Congress. While most of these seats are eventually occupied by someone from the same party as their predecessor, in a House where the majority party has just a one or two seat margin, even a temporary vacancy could mean the speaker would have (an even more) difficult time finding enough votes to pass legislation.

In fact, there doesn’t even need to be a vacancy to create chaos. Lawmakers also get sick, have to deal with family matters, and miss votes if they are on the campaign trail. Any House member who misses a day of work between January 2023 and January 2025 could be missing a vital partisan vote and could very well represent the difference between a bill’s passage…or failure.

Republicans could mitigate that last problem, but will they?

The Tools to Manage a Narrow House

The House has been operating under proxy voting rules since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. While historically members of the House have had to physically be on the House floor to vote, these rules have allowed lawmakers to cast their votes in the House from anywhere.

Early on, this measure helped protect lawmakers from the virus. Republicans argue it is no longer necessary and pledged during the 2022 campaign cycle to get rid of proxy voting if they won a majority. But if they do, they would be taking away a tool that could help them manage the effects of short-term absences.

GOP lawmakers also have pledged to get rid of congressionally directed spending projects, or what Washington used to call earmarks.

When they took back Congress in 2021, Democrats brought back the opportunity for individual lawmakers to request grants for organizations and infrastructure in their respective districts through the annual appropriations process. These projects not only take some discretion away from executive branch agencies about how to spend federal dollars, they give party leaders leverage over rank-and-file lawmakers. To put it bluntly, party leaders scrounging for votes on partisan bill can – and will – ask their members who may not be inclined to support a piece of legislation: how badly do you want that bridge in Omaha? In 2018, Bloomberg editors reported, “With Congress in deep disrepair, locked in partisan and intra-partisan warfare, earmarks are getting a second look mostly as a way to help grease the rusty wheels of legislation.”

Earmarks certainly could be a tool to keep lawmakers in line again — but only if leaders retain the practice in the 118th Congress.

There is at least one last lever for House leaders to use to keep (or grow) their numbers: convince moderate members of the opposing party to jump ship. In 2001, Sen. Jim Jeffords from Vermont shifted from Republican to an Independent who caucused with Democrats to give that party control of the Senate.

The 116th Congress saw three House members switch parties: two left the GOP and one was a Democrat who moved to the right. Throughout history, 31 House members have left to join a new party, and there are some big names on that list: Franklin D. Roosevelt (Liberal to Democratic Party), Phil Gramm (Democrat to Republican), and former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal who switched from Democrat to Republican when he was in the House in 1995.

In the 117th Congress one lawmaker, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) single-handedly was able to stop the Build Back Better Act because of the Democrats’ narrow, one-seat majority in the upper chamber of Congress.

Depending on the final vote tally from the 2022 elections, it’s possible that every single lawmaker in the House will have the same type of leverage that Sen. Manchin did, creating a massive headache for congressional leadership.

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