Matt Gaetz and Kevin McCarthy confront each other with other lawmakers around them.

Why Is Congress So Divided and Dysfunctional?

Will there be larger majorities any time soon?

I have been in politics for a while, and I have never seen as much division as I do right now. Sure, I didn’t like George W. Bush’s policies and I didn’t vote for Mitt Romney, but things are different now. Not just in the executive branch, but specifically in Congress. Back during Obama’s first run, I remember some politicians by name, but not too many Congresspeople to be honest. But now, people are making names for themselves by acting truly unhinged. These extremists get plenty of attention from the media that breathlessly covers their antics. Consider how much press coverage Donald Trump got in the 2016 election and continues to get to this day. Republicans are mimicking Trump’s playbook by being louder and more outlandish than ever.

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This brings us to the current chaos in the House of Representatives, where fame-hungry Trump zealot Rep. Matt Gaetz unseated House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. But while these extremist MAGA Republicans were successful in canning McCarthy, their antics have brought Congress to a standstill, as they are unable to agree on a new Speaker of the House. Republicans now find themselves trying to push Rep. Jim Jordan to be the next Speaker of the House, but like recent dropout Steve Scalise, he is unlikely to muster the 217 votes needed.

Currently, the Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives by 221 (R) to 212 (D) seats. This means that any Republican running for the speakership can only afford to lose 4 votes in their own party, a minuscule amount. They can’t govern effectively. But can anyone? If we chart what has been going on, we start to see that the majority party has rarely held a margin of 50 or more seats. CNN found that since 1994, when Republicans had a good congressional victory during the middle of President Clinton’s first term, only two 50 or more majorities have existed. The 111th Congress, from 2009-2011 saw a 79-seat majority by the Democrats. The 114th Congress, from 2015-2017 saw a 59-seat majority by the Republicans. That’s it. Looking at data from the 93rd Congress to the 103rd Congress, we see that most of them had a larger margin by the majority party. 

The two smallest margins held by a majority party from that time period, which total the years 1973 to 1995, were 51 seats. This occurred in the 93rd Congress which was from 1973-1975 and the 97th Congress which was from 1981-1983. On the other hand, there were some very large majorities that seem totally unthinkable now. The 94th Congress, 1975-1977, saw a 147-seat majority held by the Democrats. The following term saw an even bigger margin of a 149-seat majority, also held by the Democrats. The 96th and the 98th Congress also saw 100+ margins enjoyed by the Democrats. Did this change during the Reagan years? Reagan was a popular politician, though I am personally not a fan. The majorities lessened but were still quite wide. Aside from that 97th Congress, no majority was under 70 seats. Things really shifted in the mid-1990s to now. Republicans had a run of majorities, but tiny ones; the margins from 1995 to 2007 ranged from only 7 to 31. Democrats took over the next two terms, with a margin of 31 and 79. And we have kind of been seasawing back and forth ever since. 

The “era of small majorities” as CNN described, is happening for a few different reasons. Congress is divided in many ways because America is divided. We see this all of the time, as the parties drift further apart and extremism and tribalism are on the rise. Of course, social media isn’t always “real life” but … it kind of is.  Almost every person is on some form of social media platform. As someone who spends way too much time online, there’s not a shortage of division, bubbles of information, and crevices of groupthink. I have also been in the “real world” having worked on campaigns. I have personally canvassed and called thousands of voters and there aren’t a lot of commonalities, despite what aspirational politicians may try and say. I can’t remember many things that liberals/conservatives and Democrats/Republicans have said that are similar. We want to believe that there are still common threads that keep us together as Americans, but I have more often seen the opposite. This isn’t to say that most people may not care about certain issues, like wages or stopping terrorism, but it’s not always what motivates them to vote.

The other really important factor is that there’s just not as much competition anymore. Gerrymandering has played a big part in politics; congressional maps and races in general heavily favor incumbents. Because of this, we do not usually see many seats being turned over to someone new, especially to someone of a different party. The Cook Political Report gives partisan scores to every Congressional race in the country. A competitive district is considered between R+5 and D+5. In regular terms, these races are between slightly leaning in favor of Republicans and slightly leaning in favor of Democrats. They have found that the number of such races has been drastically reduced from 164 in 1998 to 82 in 2022. They found that partisanship and gerrymandering are the leading causes.

According to Cook, Republican-led states have utilized partisan redistricting, which leads to fewer swing districts. What we see from this is the influx of fringe candidates, who maybe a few decades ago, would have stood no chance at being elected to public office. I’m looking at you, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz! Moderates seem like a thing of the past. Those considered moderate almost always seem like the ones at most risk. Or now, they just choose not to run again. 

Having looked at the data, there does seem to be a complex fusion of hyperpartisanship, with declining party affiliation. In my state of North Carolina for instance, I have seen a rapid increase in unaffiliated voters that I talk to on the various campaigns I have worked on. And how many times in the media do we hear about the rise of the independent voter, blah blah? But we are electing people who aren’t necessarily moderate or independent, at least in the ways we categorize them politically. 

Where do we go from here? I honestly have no clue. There are some legal challenges to things like gerrymandering, but with the Supreme Court we have now, I don’t think that will favor Democrats. America can wake up and stop electing extreme people, of course. But when races are drawn to cater to an extreme group of voters, why would I expect anything less? There are real ramifications to these developments, as we can currently see in Congress. I hope politicians and voters understand the point of all of this, which is to help people. Or maybe I am just too much of a softy. 

(featured image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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