Here's what a one-seat Republican majority would look like

Here's what a one-seat Republican majority would look like
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Last week CBS released the results of its most recent “battleground tracker” poll. The polls predict the number of seats each party will hold in the next Congress, given different turnout scenarios. In the low turnout scenario, Republicans were forecast to win 218 seats — exactly the number the need to maintain control of the House.

The poll immediately became fodder for Democratic fundraising pitches. The poll results were perfect for stoking the fears of liberals, for who continued Republican control of Congress would indeed be scary and dispiriting.


A one-seat majority for either party — but perhaps especially for the Republicans — might well be a political nightmare but for reasons different than what the Democratic fundraising pitches envisioned.

We have never had a 218-217 party balance in Congress, but we’ve come close a couple of times. At the beginning of the 65th Congress (1917-1919), Republicans had a one-seat plurality, (215 of 435) but not a majority and Democrats organized the chamber with the help of four minor party candidates.

The majority proved to be stable and the most consequential issues of that session did not always divide Congress along party lines. Republicans emerged from the 1930 election with a one-seat majority, but by the time the 72nd Congress (1931-1933) met, an astonishing fourteen members of Congress died and Democrats had eked out a durable majority. 

Although there was acrimony between the House leadership and President Hoover, the deteriorating economy left Republicans and the Republican president with diminished expectations that they could regain the majority in 1932.

We can’t really draw on lessons from the past, then, to determine what would happen today if Congressional control depended on one seat. Neither of these Congresses featured an ideological gap between the parties that in any way resembled what we see now and despite the failures of the Presidents in both of these Congresses, neither Wilson nor Hoover bore the sort of animus toward the minority party that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation MORE has exhibited.

What would American politics look like, over the next two years, with a one-seat Republican edge?

For starters, the Republicans would need every single member to vote with the party every time. If Republicans are able to hold their majority, it would almost certainly require that the slightly more moderate suburban Republicans held their seats. These same moderates would then have to turn around and cast some tough votes, or else risk sinking their party’s agenda.

Another way to consider this scenario is that every single member of the Republican caucus would have veto power over the party agenda. The party would have to offer all sorts of incentives to recalcitrant member; or simply do nothing.

We have seen isolated instances of this sort of arm-twisting in the past — most notoriously, in the passage of George W. Bush’s Medicare Reform legislation (which passed in a Congress where the majority party held 229 seats). Every single consequential bill might well arrive on the floor with its outcome in doubt.  

Any Republican vacancy that appeared would put control of Congress at stake. Special elections in the Trump Era have already attracted record spending even in districts without a history of competitive elections.

In this post-Citizens United era, which was a Supreme Court case that ruled political spending akin to free speech and protected under the First Amendment, super PACs would do whatever they could to save the Republican majority. Then would take full credit for it if they were successful. The urge to avoid such special elections would mean that criminal indictments or ethical transgressions that once might have led to resignations would now be brushed aside, lest party control be jeopardized.

Democrats would have no incentive whatsoever to cooperate with Republicans. A failed Congress would increase the chance of Democratic capture of the chamber in 2020. There would, however, be internecine war among Democrats.

A second election year in a row where predictions of Democratic success went up in flames would lead to outright rebellion on both flanks of the party. Democratic messaging, the choices of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) about which districts to target, the unpopularity of the party’s geriatric leadership — all would be held up as reasons for the party’s failure to win a majority. Little other than the desire to prevent Republicans from accomplishing anything would unify the party.

Perhaps a president with the ability to reach across the aisle, to offer nonpartisan solutions, to be a maker of deals, would be able to guide such a Congress. In the absence of such a president, there seems little reason why Republicans would even want to control such a Congress. It might even be better for the Republicans’ long run prospects to hope that Democrats win a narrow majority and face some of the same problems in corralling votes, winning over recalcitrant members. It might be better, were it not for the ability Democratic committee chairs would have to investigate the various instances of executive branch malfeasance that Republicans have ignored.

Of course, a one-seat Democratic majority would have its own problems. And a two-seat majority for either party, maybe even a three-set majority would likely pose less severe versions of the same. While it might be interesting for political scientists, it won’t be much fun for Americans who expect their Congress to actually accomplish things.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.