House Democrats Face Long Minority

Democrats, who once held the House of Representatives for almost fifty years without interruption, may well face the same period of Republican domination there.  Since 1994, there have been eleven general elections, and only twice, in 2006 and 2008, have Democrats won a majority of the races.  If Republicans hold the House for the foreseeable future, Democrats will have no one to blame but themselves.

In three critical areas, Republicans long fought for reforms that would prevent one party from dominating the House of Representatives, and in each of these three areas, Democrats, smug about their chances of making the rules of political elections forever, fought and defeated these reforms in the areas of term limits, minority party rights in House operations, and gerrymandering.

Twenty years ago, right after Republicans captured the House of Representatives, House Republicans pushed strongly for term limits.  The proposed constitutional amendment to create term limits was resisted by Democrats and mocked by the left; it failed because Democrats were confident that over the long term they, not Republicans, would win most House and Senate elections and so draw the residual power from incumbency.  House Republicans who won election in 1994 took, in many cases, a three-term pledge, and, in almost every case, these House Republicans honored that pledge.

Today, however, most members of the House are Republicans, and the advantages of incumbency will make these House Republicans difficult to unseat.  Indeed, after a few elections, most incumbent members of the House are almost impossible to unseat.  Their staff does constituent service, creating a huge amount of residual goodwill.  The congressmen work the local media assiduously to create a positive and prominent public image.  And, of course, congressmen raise money for any future opponent into war chests big enough to scare away most challengers.

House Republicans after the 1994 election also enacted sweeping reforms on very first day that the House was in session.  Many of these reforms were intended to end the majority-rule domination of House operations that had allowed Democrats to keep any Republican proposals bottled up in committee or keep away from a floor vote.  These reforms were so obviously good that most Democrats actually voted for them, too.

Speaker Pelosi in 2007, however, seemed to believe that her party would keep control of the House forever.  The shenanigans reached their nadir during the Obamacare machinations, when Pelosi openly pondered whether she could have “deemed” Obamacare to have passed the House after Senate changes.

When the House majority runs roughshod over the rights of the minority party, it produces two key benefits.  First, the power of incumbency is magnified.  A three-term congressman who chairs a key House subcommittee that affects his district is much easier to re-elect than a three-term congressman who chairs no subcommittee.  Second, the majority party can hold House votes on measures that the minority party does not want to vote on, and it can bottle up measures that the minority party wants members to go on records as supporting or opposing.

Gerrymandering, or drawing legislative district lines to create as many districts that the majority party can win as possible, was practiced for many decades by Democrats over the objections of Republicans.  Because of huge gains in state legislatures and governorships, Republicans were able after the 2000 census and particularly after the 2010 census to maximize the number of Republicans in Congress. 

As a consequence, in blue states whose state governments were controlled by Republicans after 2010, Republicans won the lion's share of seats:  9 of the 14 House seats in Michigan, 12 of the 16 seats in Ohio, and 13 of the 18 seats in Pennsylvania.  The impact of gerrymandering carries over into state legislative districts as well, making it hard for the minority party in a state legislature to gain a majority.

Republicans long campaigned against gerrymandering with policy arguments, lawsuits, and pleas for fairness.  Democrats, happy to extract every advantage of their control of state legislatures, mocked Republicans and, after the 1980 census, boasted gleefully in California that Democrat gerrymandering alone had cost Republicans perhaps ten seats in the House of Representatives. 

These three advantages together may create a House majority for Republicans that will last for decades.  If this happens, then it will be because House Democrats have sown the wind and are now reaping the whirlwind.  House Democrats will be facing a long period as minority party members because the wholesome reforms that Republicans championed were rejected by their smug and overconfident bosses.

Democrats, who once held the House of Representatives for almost fifty years without interruption, may well face the same period of Republican domination there.  Since 1994, there have been eleven general elections, and only twice, in 2006 and 2008, have Democrats won a majority of the races.  If Republicans hold the House for the foreseeable future, Democrats will have no one to blame but themselves.

In three critical areas, Republicans long fought for reforms that would prevent one party from dominating the House of Representatives, and in each of these three areas, Democrats, smug about their chances of making the rules of political elections forever, fought and defeated these reforms in the areas of term limits, minority party rights in House operations, and gerrymandering.

Twenty years ago, right after Republicans captured the House of Representatives, House Republicans pushed strongly for term limits.  The proposed constitutional amendment to create term limits was resisted by Democrats and mocked by the left; it failed because Democrats were confident that over the long term they, not Republicans, would win most House and Senate elections and so draw the residual power from incumbency.  House Republicans who won election in 1994 took, in many cases, a three-term pledge, and, in almost every case, these House Republicans honored that pledge.

Today, however, most members of the House are Republicans, and the advantages of incumbency will make these House Republicans difficult to unseat.  Indeed, after a few elections, most incumbent members of the House are almost impossible to unseat.  Their staff does constituent service, creating a huge amount of residual goodwill.  The congressmen work the local media assiduously to create a positive and prominent public image.  And, of course, congressmen raise money for any future opponent into war chests big enough to scare away most challengers.

House Republicans after the 1994 election also enacted sweeping reforms on very first day that the House was in session.  Many of these reforms were intended to end the majority-rule domination of House operations that had allowed Democrats to keep any Republican proposals bottled up in committee or keep away from a floor vote.  These reforms were so obviously good that most Democrats actually voted for them, too.

Speaker Pelosi in 2007, however, seemed to believe that her party would keep control of the House forever.  The shenanigans reached their nadir during the Obamacare machinations, when Pelosi openly pondered whether she could have “deemed” Obamacare to have passed the House after Senate changes.

When the House majority runs roughshod over the rights of the minority party, it produces two key benefits.  First, the power of incumbency is magnified.  A three-term congressman who chairs a key House subcommittee that affects his district is much easier to re-elect than a three-term congressman who chairs no subcommittee.  Second, the majority party can hold House votes on measures that the minority party does not want to vote on, and it can bottle up measures that the minority party wants members to go on records as supporting or opposing.

Gerrymandering, or drawing legislative district lines to create as many districts that the majority party can win as possible, was practiced for many decades by Democrats over the objections of Republicans.  Because of huge gains in state legislatures and governorships, Republicans were able after the 2000 census and particularly after the 2010 census to maximize the number of Republicans in Congress. 

As a consequence, in blue states whose state governments were controlled by Republicans after 2010, Republicans won the lion's share of seats:  9 of the 14 House seats in Michigan, 12 of the 16 seats in Ohio, and 13 of the 18 seats in Pennsylvania.  The impact of gerrymandering carries over into state legislative districts as well, making it hard for the minority party in a state legislature to gain a majority.

Republicans long campaigned against gerrymandering with policy arguments, lawsuits, and pleas for fairness.  Democrats, happy to extract every advantage of their control of state legislatures, mocked Republicans and, after the 1980 census, boasted gleefully in California that Democrat gerrymandering alone had cost Republicans perhaps ten seats in the House of Representatives. 

These three advantages together may create a House majority for Republicans that will last for decades.  If this happens, then it will be because House Democrats have sown the wind and are now reaping the whirlwind.  House Democrats will be facing a long period as minority party members because the wholesome reforms that Republicans championed were rejected by their smug and overconfident bosses.