Why dysfunction in Congress could be here to stay

The GOP's narrow House majority is one factor in the current chaos.

October 25, 2023, 1:51 PM

The removal of former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and the subsequent three-week vacancy in the speaker’s chair was either a once-in-a-lifetime moment or the beginning of a new trend.

The prolonged fight to find a new speaker was a study in congressional dysfunction, with Republicans privately and publicly expressing outrage at colleagues in their own conference. And at least one Republican who managed to force a change in leadership has credited the narrowness of their majority for their newfound power.

But even if the slim majority contributes to congressional chaos, it doesn’t explain the entire story. In fact, past Congresses with even narrower majorities have managed to pass groundbreaking and generation-defining legislation. Rather, the current situation in the House is the result of a mixture of factors, from broad electoral trends to specific political incentives. That could mean that the 118th Congress is a perfect storm, a rare combination of forces that generated a particularly uncooperative majority. But it could also mean that the 118th Congress is just a taste of what’s to come in the future, a new trend of dysfunction breaking from centuries of House tradition.

Is Congress abnormally closely divided?

Republicans currently have a nine-seat majority in the U.S. House, with two vacancies that will be filled later this year. One of those vacant seats is a heavily Democratic district in Rhode Island, and the other is a Republican-leaning district in Utah. So, barring any unexpected vacancies, that nine-seat margin will remain in place even after those seats are filled.

According to data compiled by Drew DeSilver at the Pew Research Center, that narrow of a margin is quite rare. Since 1913, when the House reached its current complement of 435 seats (although there was a brief increase to 437 in the 1950s after Alaska and Hawaii were granted statehood), the majority party has had a cushion of fewer than nine seats just twice: 1917-19 and 1931-33. And according to DeSilver’s review of what past Congresses had passed, the worst-case scenario for congressional productivity was often a combination of divided government and a narrow congressional majority.

That said, there are more recent examples of majorities that have been pretty narrow. In the 83rd Congress (1953-55) and 107th Congress (2001-03), the GOP had just a 10-seat majority. And in the last Congress, Democrats had a cushion of 11 seats. In the 56 Congresses since 1912, the majority and minority have been separated by 20 seats or fewer 10 times.

But in all of these examples, those narrow majorities didn’t last. Republicans may have had a two-seat majority in the 65th Congress (1917-19), but their majority expanded to a margin of 47 after the 1918 election. After the 1932 election, Democrats expanded their five-seat majority to a 194-seat majority. After the 1998 election, it took a little longer for the majority to expand, but it still happened: Republicans’ majority hovered between 10-12 seats in the two congresses between 1999-2003, but by 2003-05, they had expanded that majority to 24.

Will Congress remain this dysfunctional?

The current Congress is the second in a row with a narrow majority: Democrats had an 11-seat majority in the last Congress, and, when the House convened in 2023, Republicans had a 10-seat majority. (That margin has since dipped to nine seats, after Democrats filled the late Rep. Don McEachin’s open seat in a special election.) Will the usual historical pattern hold and produce a wider majority after 2024? Perhaps, but there is one big reason to think we may be in an era of semi-permanent narrow majorities: The number of competitive House districts is historically low.

According to 538’s partisan lean metric,* there were 124 competitive seats in the 2022 election, and just 40 of those were highly competitive. Compare that to 1998 and 2000, when there were over 100 highly competitive seats alone. That means there are simply fewer seats that could conceivably change parties, and less opportunity for either party to win a sizable majority.

While redistricting — and gerrymandering — may seem like the obvious culprit, the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman has argued that the main driver behind the decline in competitive seats is actually geographic self-sorting based on political identity. While some districts are in fact drawn to be less competitive, for the most part, voters who share political identities simply choose to live near one another. Rural districts therefore are redder than ever, while urban districts are Democratic strongholds.

But even if narrow majorities continue to reign over the House, that doesn’t mean Congress has to remain gridlocked. The 65th Congress — the one with a two-seat majority — voted to declare war on Germany and continued to work to support American war efforts, including passing the Selective Service Act of 1917, conscripting young men to join the armed forces. The 83rd Congress, where Republicans had a 10-seat majority, created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

The recent dearth of competitive seats, however, doesn’t only influence the size of the majority: It also influences the character of the elected officials who make up that majority. Competitive districts often produce politicians who feel incentivized to compromise. In “safe” districts, the most important campaign is the primary, not the general election, meaning candidates are rewarded for sticking as close to their base as possible.

In fact, political polarization across the country is on the rise, independent of how districts are drawn. Republicans in particular say they don’t want their elected officials to work with Democrats, even when it’s necessary to keep government functioning. For example, a Suffolk University/USA Today poll conducted Oct. 17-20 found that 55 percent of Republicans preferred “standing firm on demands to cut government spending, even if it means a government shutdown.” And when Monmouth University asked whether members of Congress should “stick to their spending principles even if it leads to a shutdown” or “compromise on their spending principles to avoid a shutdown,” 46 percent of Republicans chose the former. (The poll, conducted Sept. 19-24, was taken in the days before it looked like the government would miss its funding deadline; what happened instead, of course, was that a small faction of Republicans ousted McCarthy for his collaboration with Democrats to avoid a shutdown.) Finally, over the last couple of decades, Americans’ views about the opposing political party have become increasingly negative. Notably, Pew recently found that most voters believe that the opposing political party is unethical and disrespectful of government institutions.

That all leads to fewer incentives for politicians to compromise. And as political polarization discourages compromise, the rise of social media in political communication has also eliminated the need for many politicians to express any sort of nuance. Instead, posts that spark conflict tend to get more engagement — and that means a higher profile to advance one’s career and also a broader audience for small-dollar donations, said Maggie Macdonald, who teaches political science at the University of Kentucky and was previously a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Social Media and Politics at New York University.

To be sure, politicians don’t use social media exclusively to boost their own profiles; they’re also building a community of engagement that could help their political party up and down the ballot, creating a sense of identity that all members of the same party theoretically share. But that only works if a governing majority of members of the majority party share that goal. And some members of the current Republican majority seem to see their slim margin as a feature rather than as a flaw — a means by which to gain power rather than a coalition upon which to build. Rep. Matt Rosendale, one of the eight Republicans who voted with Democrats to oust McCarthy from leadership, reportedly prayed for only a small GOP majority in the 2022 midterms. The thinking goes that the smaller the Republicans’ majority, the more power a small but unified right-wing faction would have to direct the party. Several of the Republicans who voted to remove McCarthy — including Reps. Matt Gaetz and Andy Biggs — also attended a conference shortly after the midterms in which activist Ed Corrigan laid out a strategy to leverage the narrow majority to give the Freedom Caucus its own set of powers.

In times like these with narrow congressional majorities and high polarization, there’s simply not much personal or political incentive for politicians to actually do the work of governing, even if the policy implications of a dysfunctional government could be catastrophic for the country. It’s a sentiment that longtime members of Congress have lamented as they head for the exits, decrying that the way politics works now rewards the loudest voices in the room, rather than the lawmakers actually attempting to work through policy disagreements.

“The people who are in charge and seen as leaders are not necessarily leaders for what we expect people in Congress to do,” Macdonald said, “which is pass laws.”

*Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean.