House Republicans now have one of the smallest majorities in history

WASHINGTON — The 118th House of Representatives has been marked by its history-making moments: the first multiballot speaker election in 100 years, the first speaker ever to be voted out of office and the first member expelled without a conviction since the Civil War.

While Republicans have had a narrow majority through it all, they’re entering another history-making moment this week: one of the smallest House majorities ever.

House Republicans have lost three members since December, with the expulsion of Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., the resignation of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Rep. Bill Johnson’s, R-Ohio, departure this week to start a new job as the president of Youngstown State University. Republicans hold 219 seats to Democrats’ 213, giving new Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., little margin for error to pass legislation.

With Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., out until February for treatments related to his blood cancer diagnosis, that shrinks the majority even further.

Since the House was set at 435 members in 1913, some narrow majorities have faced difficulty getting bills passed while others achieved legislative success. Some have even seen the balance of power shift to the opposing party — though never in the middle of a session. Here’s what history can teach us about a closely divided House.

1917: A coalition majority

Election day in 1916 came and went without a clear indication of whether President Woodrow Wilson had been re-elected or which party would control the lower chamber of Congress. “HOUSE MAY BE A TIE,” read the New York Times headline the following day. 

By the end of the week, Wilson had clinched a second term but the House was still a toss-up. While Republicans had 215 seats to 214 for Democrats, neither party had a majority because of a few seats that were held by minor parties. It was becoming clear that these minor party members-elect controlled the balance of power.

On the opening day of the 65th Congress on April 2, 1917, Congressman Thomas Schall of Minnesota, a self-described progressive Republican, rose to speak. “I have always been a Republican and still am a Lincoln Republican,” Schall said. But then he did something he said could lead to his “political death”: he nominated Democrat Champ Clark to be speaker, arguing that Wilson deserved a Democratic-controlled House as World War I raged on in Europe. 

With the help of a few progressives and a socialist, Democrats were able to give Wilson just that, a coalition majority of 217 in the House. Clark was elected speaker and just hours later, Wilson arrived at the Capitol to ask Congress in a joint session address for a declaration of war against Germany. 

It took the House a few days to debate the merits of war, but just after 3 a.m. on April 6, the body adopted only its fourth declaration of war ever on a vote of 373 to 50

Even with a narrow majority, the 65th House was quite active in its legislative output. Congress passed the Selective Service Act in May 1917 that set up the draft, sent the 18th Amendment to the states prohibiting the sale of alcohol and passed multiple bills authorizing war bonds.

1931: Deaths flipped the balance of power

Similarly to what occurred 14 years earlier, it was unclear which party had won control of the House for a few days after the 1930 election. By the weekend after Election Day, it appeared that Republicans held a narrow majority with 218 seats to 216 for Democrats and one held by a member of the Farmer-Labor party, Rep. Paul Kvale of Minnesota.

Kvale’s answer to The Washington Star shortly after the election as to how he would vote for speaker proved prescient. He said seeing as the new session would not start for 13 more months and “knowing also that changes will inevitably take place in the personnel of members-elect,” it did not make sense for him to comment at the time. (Before the 20th Amendment was adopted in 1933, the term for a new Congress began in March but the first session would usually start the following December, 13 months after the election.)

By the opening day of the 72nd Congress in December 1931, 14 members-elect had died. Incumbent Speaker Nicholas Longworth, an Ohio Republican, was one of those members, having passed away after a case of pneumonia. Special elections for those seats took away Republicans’ narrow majority. Democrats now had 219 seats to 213 for Republicans and Kvale retained his seat for Farmer-Labor.

The balance of power had flipped and Democrat John Nance Garner, “the former Texas cowboy,” as The New York Times called him, was elected speaker. But with President Herbert Hoover occupying the White House and a narrow Republican majority in the Senate, legislative output was not as steady as in the 65th Congress. 

In the midst of the Great Depression, Congress passed the Reconstruction Finance Corporation Act as a way to provide loans to banks. The House also passed a bill to provide payments to veterans of World War I, but the Senate defeated the bill even after the veterans marched on the Capitol grounds.

1953: A narrow Republican majority kept shrinking

With Dwight Eisenhower at the head of the ticket, Republicans won control of the White House, the Senate and the House in the 1952 elections. But, The New York Times pointed out at the time, the margins were narrow in both chambers of Congress, stating that Eisenhower “would not have a comfortable working majority in either house and would require all his gifts of persuasion to win consent for his policies on Capitol Hill.”

With a breakdown of 221 Republicans to 213 Democrats and one independent, Republican Joseph Martin of Massachusetts was elected speaker. Congress created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare as well as the Small Business Administration.

Deaths in the House shrunk the majority for Republicans down to 218 to 213 by the end of the second session, according to a CQ Almanac article from 1954. After the conclusion of the 83rd Congress, Republicans would not regain control of the House until 1994. 

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