The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can a tiny House majority get anything done? Here’s what history says.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) departs after speaking on the results of the midterm election at the Westin Hotel on Nov. 9 in Washington, DC. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
5 min

It will take weeks for all the votes to be counted, but one thing is becoming clear: Regardless of which party wins control of the House, its majority will be narrow — likely among the narrowest in history.

What can the past tell us about what happens when Congress is so closely divided? This is not the first time an American Congress has been nearly evenly split in the modern era of a 435-seat House. And the two slimmest House majorities came at times with stark parallels to today: One convened amid a war in Europe that the U.S. hadn’t (yet) entered; the other was elected amid painful economic upheaval. Here’s what we can learn from them.

65th Congress (1917-1919)

Republicans took the House majority by only one seat in the 1916 election — sort of. This was an era with a lot of other political parties, so while Republicans were elected to 215 seats and Democrats to 214, there were also three members of the Progressive Party, one Independent Republican, one Prohibitionist and one Socialist. (The Socialist, Wisconsin’s Victor Berger, was not permitted to take his seat; it was a whole thing.)

Because some of those third-party members aligned with the Democrats, the House kept its Democratic speaker, Missouri’s James Beauchamp Clark, despite the technical Republican majority. (This was the before the party realignment of the mid-20th century, so the Democrats were considered the more conservative party and the Republicans the more progressive party.)

Such an even and chaotic split might sound like a recipe for gridlock, but there was a major difference between then and now: World War I. Though President Woodrow Wilson had tried to keep the United States neutral in the European war, Germany’s sinking of U.S. ships added up, uniting Republicans and Democrats against a common enemy. The United States entered the war in April 1917, only a month after the 65th Congress took its seats. (Inaugurations for members of Congress and the president took place in March until the adoption of the 20th Amendment in 1933.)

The 65th Congress was remarkably productive — not only did it authorize a declaration of war by a 373-50 vote, it also passed the 18th Amendment prohibiting alcohol, which requires a two-thirds majority in the House. This Congress also included the first woman elected to the House, Montana Republican Jeannette Rankin. Rankin was one of the few members of Congress to vote against the war, essentially dooming her chances of reelection.

As a vote on entering World War I approached, the only woman in Congress faced an agonizing choice

72nd Congress (1931-1933)

After the midterm election in November 1930, Republicans were set to have a small majority in the House, 218-216, along with one member of a third party. Then a truly insane thing happened: Between the election and the start of the 72nd Congress in March 1931, 14 members-elect died, including the incumbent speaker, Republican Nicholas Longworth. The resulting special elections to replace them shifted the balance of power to the Democrats, 219-212.

That still wasn’t much of a margin, and with the GOP holding a one-seat majority in the Senate and Republican Herbert Hoover in the White House, partisanship doomed the government’s productivity at the worst time possible. This was in the early years of the Great Depression, and the two parties had very different ideas about how to respond to the crisis. Congress passed public works legislation that might have provided some relief, but Hoover vetoed it, and there wasn’t a large enough coalition to override his veto. Then, when World War I veterans were desperate for “bonus” checks they had been promised, Congress didn’t deliver. Nearly 20,000 unemployed veterans, the so-called Bonus Army, descended on Washington in protest.

The voter backlash against these failures fell on Republicans, and it was so harsh that they wouldn’t hold a majority in either the House or the Senate for 14 years. They wouldn’t regain the White House for 20.

107th Congress (2001-2003)

This Congress convened with just an eight-seat Republican majority in January 2001, the same month President George W. Bush took office despite having lost the popular vote. That might have spelled partisan gridlock, but then came the 9/11 terrorist attacks, spurring a momentary unity not unlike the 65th Congress amid World War I. On big votes, like the Patriot Act, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the authorization for use of force in Iraq and Afghanistan, the party split didn’t matter at all: The vote margins were overwhelming.

117th Congress and beyond

It may come as no surprise that the current Congress also has one of the narrowest party splits in history. It started in January 2021 with a 10-seat Democratic majority, 222-212, not to mention a 50-50 split in the Senate.

Time will tell how narrow a majority the winning party will have in the next Congress, but it is almost certain to be fewer than 10 seats.


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the 1916 election was a midterm election. It was not. This version has been corrected.