The House’s task will be harder than most appreciate

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While all eyes focus on the Senate’s upcoming balance, the House’s tightness is ignored. This is a mistake, because while its control now may not be in doubt — as is the Senate’s — the House’s narrow margin and wider ideological spectrum will offer huge legislative challenges. 

When coupled with the fast approaching 2022 midterms, and the historic precedent of the president’s party losing seats, the challenge looms larger still.

On Jan. 5, two Georgia runoff elections will decide which party controls the Senate. If Republicans win either of the two races, they will retain control of the Senate. If Democrats win both races, they will gain control by virtue of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris being able to cast a tie-breaking vote if needed. The Senate stakes could not be higher.

Across the Capitol, all is perceived to be calm. Since well before the election, its control was never in doubt. In Washington, where turbulence has reigned everywhere else, the House is the eye of the hurricane. Yet like the eye, its moment comes as the storm moves; the House’s is approaching.

Ignored is the fact that the House will have an extremely narrow majority — largely because it was unexpected. Depending on the outcome of Real Clear Politics’ remaining undecided race, Democrats will hold anywhere from 222 to 223 of the total 435 seats.  

Either way, the Democrats’ majority will be smaller than it has been in 20 years. In working terms, it means Democrats can only lose between four and five seats and still pass legislation. As tight as that is, it is effectively tighter still. 

Within House Democrats’ narrow majority are 39 Members (40 if they win the remaining undecided seat) who won by less than 10 percent of the popular vote in 2020 — just under 20 percent of all House Democrats. In theory, for those within this 10-percentage point margin, just a five percent popular vote swing would have changed their race’s outcome. In reality, the average swing would need to be only half that.

The average popular vote percentage for the 39 Members in question was just 51.8 percent, while their average opponent’s total was 46.9 percent. This less than five percentage point difference means that just a 2.5 percent popular vote swing on average would have defeated them. 

Added to this group’s narrow margin are two other factors to consider. First, is redistricting, which will generally shift seats from blue states to red. Second and more important, is the precedent for the president’s party to lose seats in midterm elections.

The adverse impact on House seats has been particularly pronounced in the last two Democrat administrations. In 1994, Democrats lost 54 House seats under President Clinton and in 2010, they lost 63 House seats under President Obama. 

None of these factors are predictive and they hardly mean that all 39 Democrats in question will lose in 2020. What it does mean is that the combination of these factors — 39 members who faced close 2020 races, redistricting and the anti-president precedent of midterm elections — make for an even more difficult legislative environment than Democrats’ already very narrow majority suggests. 

What it does mean is that House Democrat leaders, as well as the new Biden administration, will have to be particularly cognizant of these factors as they pursue their legislative agenda. This also raises a qualitative component to join these quantitative ones.

House membership is both larger and more heterogeneous than the Senate’s. House Members represent 435 individual districts, each with their individual idiosyncrasies; Senators represent just 50 states, each containing a comparatively wider breadth of priorities. Together, the House’s greater numbers and heterogeneity yield a larger ideological spectrum across which legislative compromise must be achieved. 

Generally, numbers help alleviate the House’s qualitative challenge: The majority rules — usually in the form of the majority party — and the greater the majority, the easier the ruling. In this case, the House’s quantitative challenges may exacerbate the qualitative challenge: A narrow Democrat majority with a significant number of members who survived tight races and face redistricting and a midterm election with their president-elect in the White House.  

Although eyes understandably have been on the Senate, the House warrants a look as well. There is a great deal more complexity below its surface than meets the eye and this will greatly affect its legislative considerations in the next Congress. 

In Washington, legislating in the Senate and House often can be viewed as akin to playing chess versus checkers. The Senate has complex rules and its “pieces” seemingly move in a far greater variety of ways, while the House’s “checkers” just move straight ahead. This time, the House will be a far more difficult game in the next Congress — perhaps even the more difficult one.  

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.

Tags 2020 elections 2020 Senate races Barack Obama Bill Clinton divided Congress Donald Trump Georgia runoff elections House races Joe Biden legislative agenda presidential election Senate

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