The State of the House of Representatives Moving Forward
Nearly a week after Election Day, Democrats across the country were celebrating as the major television networks declared Joe Biden the next President of the United States. That celebration, however, may be short-lived, as both parties prepare for two Senate elections in Georgia on January 5. With the prospect of two Senate races in one state determining the majority party of the Senate, it has nearly gone unnoticed that there are still several House races that are heading to a runoff or remain too close to call. In Iowa, Democrat Rita Hart leads Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks by less than 200 votes. Incumbent Ben McAdams (D-UT) trails Republican challenger Burgess Owens in a race that has not been called yet. California Democrat TJ Cox, a freshman representative, is also currently trailing former GOP Congressman David Valadao.
Though it appears extremely unlikely that they will lose their majority, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and her party are now facing the unavoidable reality that House Democrats’ majority has narrowed, possibly by a significant amount. Republicans have already picked up a net of five seats by defeating Democratic incumbents in Florida, Iowa, New York, and South Carolina. They will look to pick up seats in the above-mentioned contests and elsewhere around the country as states finish counting ballots according to their respective laws. For example, California, where several Democrats are trailing, is permitted to accept mail-in ballots received later than other states. While we will not know the final tally for a few weeks, Democrats currently hold 215 seats and are leading in another seven races while with the GOP controls 196 seats and are currently leading in 17 races. If these numbers hold, the Democrats will only have a five-seat advantage of 222-213 of the total 435 House seats. With a party split that tight, Democrats will not have much margin for error. Speaker Pelosi and her leadership team will be under substantial pressure from an emboldened House Republican Conference that will already have its hopes set on regaining a majority in 2022. Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy may hold significant power in the 117th Congress.
Beyond expected clashes with the minority party, House Democratic Leadership will have to navigate challenges within its own party as the progressive and more moderate wings of the party clash over who is to blame for their diminished control over the chamber. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is already exploring its own rule changes to consolidate power and membership. In an internal caucus call, moderate Democrats criticized certain progressive messaging that they felt hurt Democrats across the country. Just days after the election, progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and moderate Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania gave separate interviews detailing their opposing views on the outcome of the election and future of the party. Democrats put aside their internal squabbles for the sake of unity in the 2020 election, but how they handle a tenuous grasp on power in the House may determine whether President-elect Biden can pass any significant legislation in his first two years in office.
Democrats potential trouble also extends to the committee level. While Democrats will hold the respective gavels, their majority is slim enough that it will impact committee ratios. Two or three seat majorities in important committees during this Congress may shrink to just a single seat come January. Republicans will likely only need to sway one or two Democrats on key committee-level votes. In the context of the ongoing national public health crisis, each committee’s agenda may be susceptible to delays due to coronavirus outbreaks. Depending on the individual rules each committee adopts in the next Congress with respect to remote hearings and votes, Democrats may not be able to advance legislation as quickly as they would prefer if members are forced to miss Committee meetings due to illness. This dynamic will be one to closely monitor moving forward with such a narrowly divided government.