By Charles Hunt
The arm-twisting, dealmaking and vote hunting around Kevin McCarthy’s quest to be named House speaker have put on full display the fact that razor-thin majorities in both the House and the Senate are becoming a fact of life at the federal level.
In multiple ballots conducted on Jan. 3, 2023 to elect the speaker of the House, McCarthy failed to get the required number of votes. Additional balloting is expected in the race for speaker.
Slim margins might make for dramatic television, but they create legislative and institutional uncertainty that has very real consequences for how Congress is run and how policy gets made.
Because the GOP’s 10-seat House majority is so small, McCarthy has had to placate the moderate wing, the right wing and the far-right wing of his conference – all at the same time – in his quest for the speaker’s gavel.
The GOP’s slim majority may actually get slimmer. This is because of seat vacancies caused by the early departures of members of Congress. These vacancies happen with regularity, and could have major impacts on the Republicans’ legislative agenda over the next two years.
A slim majority means that the Republican leadership can’t afford to lose support from even small groups of members within their party. But each congressional session, some members depart Congress early, leaving vacancies that can complicate party leaders’ efforts to placate their competing factions or blocs. Imagine, for example, that a moderate Republican member dies or resigns in the next few months. Will that person be replaced with another moderate? A Trump-aligned Republican? A Democrat?
With such a small advantage, the potential effect of this replacement is huge – not just for McCarthy, but for Congress as a whole, and the American people, whose lives are affected by legislation passed by Congress.
How do vacancies occur?
The 117th Congress, which met from Jan. 3, 2021, to Jan. 3, 2023, set a modern record with 15 vacancies, a rate unmatched going back to the 1950s. This was partly because of six member deaths, including Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the longest-serving House member at the time. A number of these vacancies occurred in the first days of the 117th, when several Democratic House members, including Cedric Richmond of Louisiana and Marcia Fudge of Ohio, took positions in the new Biden administration.
High-profile vacancies in recent history were due to other causes. Some members were forced to resign because of scandal, like Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., who was convicted in 2022 for lying to the FBI about illegal campaign contributions. Others cut short their current term, leaving Congress after losing their primaries, as Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, did in 2014. House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, resigned after facing threats of being ousted from leadership in 2015.
And although the 117th was a banner Congress for vacancies, the historical data demonstrates that they happen all the time. Based on my analysis, there are usually at least a handful of vacancies per two-year congressional cycle.
Resignation is the most common reason for departure in recent Congresses. However, at least one member – and often more than one – has died in all but one Congress in the past 70 years. The number of deaths that regularly occur among members is more than sufficient to change how the majority party functions in a closely contested Congress like this one.
This potentially leaves party leaders captive to some particular interest, either in their party or in the opposition party.
How are vacancies filled?
Although U.S. Senate vacancies are often – though not always – filled through an appointment by the governor of that state, the Constitution mandates that House vacancies be filled by special elections scheduled by the governor.
These elections usually happen within a few months of the vacancy. What this means is that there are real possibilities for the size of a party’s majority to shrink, or grow, between election years. And even if a majority party shift doesn’t happen, a district could still replace a moderate departing representative with an extremist, or vice versa.
Special elections have received significant focus from the media and the public in recent years. That’s mainly because their results, when compared with the most recent result for that seat, can be bellwethers for how the next set of congressional elections will turn out.
For example, a number of special elections throughout 2022 — including the Alaska race to replace Young — showed even or Democratic-leaning results compared with 2020, giving early indications that the “red wave” many experts predicted would not actually materialize.
What does this mean for the 118th Congress?
A vacating member, and the special election that decides a successor, is not just an electoral crystal ball. It can have major implications for the balance of power in Congress; any GOP leader will have to manage these implications.
On the right, there is the 44-member House Freedom Caucus and, more specifically, the “MAGA Squad” – think Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz and Andy Biggs. To the left, there’s a swath of more moderate Republicans from such states as New York and Ohio with no intention of letting far-right firebrand Marjorie Taylor Greene control the agenda.
These are two factions of Republicans who want vastly different action in the 118th Congress. The moderate bloc understands that, with a Democratic Senate and Joe Biden as president, compromise with Democrats may be necessary for legislative achievement.
Meanwhile, the far-right bloc has made other priorities clear, such as relentlessly investigating Biden, his administration and his family. Managing these competing demands will be hard enough for the new House speaker and unexpected vacancies could make the task even harder.
Beyond the tensions among Republicans, Democrats will be ready to pounce on any opportunity to divide and conquer. The recent revelations surrounding incoming Rep. George Santos, a Republican from New York, who allegedly fabricated huge portions of his résumé and personal story during his campaign, represent one such potential opportunity. If Santos is forced to resign, a Democratic victory in a special election in his Long Island swing district could cut the GOP’s majority from 10 to eight.
Even if special elections don’t change a party’s control over certain seats, vacancies can and will throw the 118th House of Representatives into chaos by shifting the balance of power from one ideological bloc to another. More chaos, that is, than it is already enduring.
Charles R. Hunt is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Boise State University.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
The GOP Trump party won the House and on the first day in office they can’t even elect their speaker of the House. Now they want us to think they know what their doing or qualified to be in control of the House but after the sixth attempt they still can’t elect a speaker of the House. Remember this when you vote in 2024.
Dennis C Rathsam says
As I watch whats going on in Washington, it only proves our country is headed for destruction. How did we lose are way? We were once the greatest country in the world, now the world is laughing at us. Our founding fathers, were all god fearing men. Sunday,s we all went to church, as a family, togeather! Theres too much hate, too much indifference. What the hell ever happened to compassion? We are failing society…theres to much meeeee, and to much IIIIIII. We used to come togeather, help one another….Those days are few & far between. The folks, my parents, members of the Greatest Generation are crying. They lived through a depression, and a World War….They held their heads high, & fought for our freedom, & America prospered. Think back to the times so long ago, when we were kids, we had no cares, no problems….Now look at todays mess…A mess that we created. Thanxs for the morals, Thanx for teaching me about God. Thanx for being there to show me right from wrong. Thanxs Mom & Pop!
Were they God fearing men? Some of them had slaves, very interesting.
The dude says
Did “Mom & Pop” teach you to vote for trump?
Ah, the Republicans are eating their own. The unspoken rule is broken. While Democrats shoot themselves in the foot, the Republicans are practicing cannibalism. My, my, my. It’s hard to get money from the corporations, and make the small groups of vocals happy too.
Deborah Coffey says
“Imagine, for example, that a moderate Republican member dies or resigns in the next few months.” Or, if three or four of the MAGAs go to prison for sedition….
Imagine if the House of Representatives of the USA elected Rep. Jefferies to the Speaker position ! Maybe that’s one path of correction to save this country.
The government is not broken
If you can’t work together there is a selfishness and nothing can be done
If that is your stance
Men like Matt Gates was given his place by his father money
And Money can buy anything as we have seen in the last 4 years
It’s been blatant and in your face
And once again the people of this country have to live with bad decisions
Hope spring eternal
On the one hand, it is kind of like watching the comedic Vacation movie starring Chevy Chase. We know it is going to be a series of hilarious disasters one right after another. And in between House GOP vote fails, I have a tendency to briefly (very briefly) see what the talking heads are saying on the faux infotainment network about the successive car crash activities on Capitol Hill that we all are witnessing in this live action comedy-drama. Hannity is just the latest to be seen acting so put out and dumbfounded, yet he and so many others on that so-called network of theirs are in really un-named co-conspirators who have helped install these radical crazies into Congress and have emboldened them to act the way they are doing. The only thing we haven’t seen so far is on-air fisticuffs between GOP members like we tend to see in third world countries when their political members meet and cannot agree on anything. So faux infotainment has been for years complicit in creating the monster they are complaining about today. But the real concern for our country on the other hand is that we desperately need both political parties working together at least some of the time in order for a government to function, and right now we only have one adult, working political party in our federal government and one very juvenile, dysfunctional and cultish group of people who seem to be stuck on mostly personal grievances and unabated power to the detriment of the entire nation and its people. I fear a horrible couple of years even if they somehow are able to get their act together and agree on a speaker.
jeffery c. seib says
This farce of a supposedly solemn event in choosing the next speaker of the house of representatives, an individual third in line for the presidency shows that we are in for possibly one of, if not the absolute worst next two years in American history. Whenever this gang gets around to the countries business these same radical groups will rear their ugly heads again. Look for the country going bankrupt and the government shutting down the first time they should have to raise the debt ceiling, a bill to totally outlaw abortion, bills to build more walls, more guns, more tax cuts for the rich, and on and on. if this was a dream, it would be a nightmare.
This is democracy in action. In reality there are effectively three political parties in the US House of Representatives. 212 members are Democrats. In reality, there are about 202 Republicans. Finally there is the freedom caucus. The freedom caucus “party” consists of about 20 anti-democratic nut jobs.
At some point perhaps, a few moderate Republicans (Yes, there still are a few.) might join together and negotiate a deal with the Democrats leadership. They will nominate a member of their group who is not objectionable to the Democrats. The Democrats as a block will assist in voting in the new Speaker. The “freedom caucus” will howl, but it will be a done deal.
Alternatively, the 202 reasonably sane Republicans will continue to try and reason with the 20 or so crazies who are nominally Republicans, while the 212 Democrats enjoy the show.
Updated, Friday McCarthy became Speaker of the House. It took 15 votes. Of the 20 originally against him, he flipped 14 and got 6 to not vote. That gave McCarthy 216 votes out of the 428 who did vote.
“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” Winston S. Churchill, November 11, 1947.
The worst part of this is that it won’t change the mind of a single MAGA supporter. They will fail to see that their extremism is eating the Republican party right in front of them. This is the direct result of electing politicians who have low IQ’s, don’t understand that they are supposed to work to make government work (sadly they think this is what they are doing) and are more interested in being on FOX News. I have no sympathy for McCarthy. He’s fed the MAGA hate machine and now he’s paying the ultimate price. I do not think he’ll be the speaker and you can see by his stubbornness that it will devastate him. He’s no loss. Live by the sword and die by it. Who ever ends up as speaker will be a weak leader. Too many concessions have been made. I hope somehow this leads the extremist in the Republican part to a more adult approach to governing. But it won’t. As long as they’re happy to “burn the house down”, they’ll fail to understand it’s their house that’s burning. So I look forward to 2024. Does anyone doubt this will be a campaign add against the Republicans then?
Karma is following McCarthy for no standing up to our Constitution after January 6th, he kissed the ring thinking that would help him get elected to speaker of the house. McCarthy has no business being a public servant.
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.
Stephen Smith says
When you elect clowns. You have to expect a circus.
The political clown show. Love it. The Repubs are putting it on for us. I just love when Republicans mess up and the world see it. Just love it. Good job Repubs. O just remember 2 years ago. Love it.
McCarthy looks weak, and rather pitiful. Those 20 will spend a lot of time eating him up and he will distribute more power to them. Nancy Pelosi is so hated by the Republicans because she is smart and knows how to get the Democrats together. The group of Republicans got tired, and voted McCarthy in after 14 unsuccessful tries. Nancy Pelosi said, regarding negotiating, “You can never get tired!” She knew how to negotiate; McCarthy did not.
McCarthy wants now to cut social security and medicare, so for all those that voted for the greedy, corrupt GOP party this is what happens. He will still receive all his perks while he cuts your social security checks. Hope you all have a large 401K if not you are in deep trouble.
Jonathan: We may be in deep trouble. Republican voters do not believe that Republican politicians will cut SS and Medicare, even though McCarthy said, on TV, that they will shut down the government in order to do that. Voters do not believe Trump wants to modify the Constitution “He never said that!” even though he tweeted it on his “Truth Social” app. They still believe January 6th was a Democratic “show.” They still believe in “witch hunts,” which they are now eager to proceed with. It goes on and on, this blatant denial. All because they believe we can go back in time to suppress black and brown people, women, religions other than Christianity that they will demand everyone to practice, and suppress LGBTQ people.
We may think it’s a bit of comical karma that the Republicans in the House are flailing, but these 20, plus most others who can’t seem, or want, to stop them, are going to cause world wide trouble. Other countries will stop looking up to us and democracy. These far right newbies with lack of knowledge, and common sense, will cause havoc, and they will blame it on Biden. Just watch.