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Proof of Congress’ ongoing dysfunction is in its current paralysis.
Republicans have a few more votes in the House, but they don’t exactly have a governing majority.
So Kevin McCarthy is now the former House speaker, and it’s not at all clear when the two men actively trying to replace him – House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana or the Donald Trump-endorsed Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio – will be able to unify the party and reopen the House. It will take near-total GOP unity to reopen the chamber.
If it feels like it wasn’t always this way, it wasn’t
The size of congressional majorities has generally shrunk in recent years, just as the country’s politics have gotten so much more tribal.
Since the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, only two majorities have exceeded 50 seats, compared with the previous decades when every Democratic majority exceeded 50 seats, usually alongside a series of Republican presidents.
There are plenty of reasons behind this era of small majorities, the first of which is that the country is closely divided and Congress, which is meant to be the “People’s House,” represents that divide.
But there’s more to it than that. Gerrymandered congressional maps are focused on protecting incumbents, which means fewer seats change hands, even when there is a shift in the country’s politics.
Despite anxiety about the economy and frustration with President Joe Biden, Republicans failed to gain many seats in the 2022 midterm elections, just barely eking out the House majority that’s giving them headaches today.
The lack of competitive seats makes it feel like we are stuck with a closely divided House and a closely divided Senate for the foreseeable future.
Half as many competitive House seats
The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter assigns a partisan score to every congressional district. A competitive, or swing, seat has a low score of between R+5 (leaning slightly Republican) and D+5 (leaning slightly Democratic).
The number of these competitive districts has been cut in half in recent decades, from 164 in the 1998 election to 82 in the 2022 election.
Cook’s recent assessment is that growing partisan divisions in the country – just as much as gerrymandering – is the cause.
In a disadvantage for Democrats, many of the states that have adopted nonpartisan systems to draw their congressional maps have seen a slower erosion of swing districts. It’s mostly Republican-controlled states that have embraced partisan redistricting that have fewer swing districts, according to Cook.
The end result is this partisan atmosphere, which seems to be getting more partisan every day and which rewards louder lawmakers on the fringes of the parties with fame and campaign cash.
Deal-makers frustrate those in their own parties but are still targeted by the opposing party.
One of McCarthy’s sins, in the eyes of the ultra-right lawmakers who were able to oust him, is that he relied on votes from Democrats to pass a short-term government funding bill. The partisan tone he took to placate the ultra-right lawmakers meant Democrats were never going to save his job.
McCarthy’s successor, whoever it is, will ultimately have to make a similar calculation next month, when government funding expires in November.
Moderates are often the most endangered members
In the Senate, the seat most likely to flip in the 2024 election, according to CNN’s Simone Pathe, who regularly assesses the field, is that of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. He aggravates many more liberal Democrats, but he’s also a chief reason they have a Senate majority in the first place.
There is a moderate middle of lawmakers. More moderate Republicans, many of them representing districts that voted for Biden in the 2020 presidential election, are sore that moderate Democrats didn’t help avoid this mess by throwing McCarthy a few, consequential votes. But it’s hard to imagine any Republicans voting for a Democratic leader.
More frequent changes in power
McCarthy’s swift exit was embarrassing and ugly for him, but deal-making to secure a leadership position is not a uniquely Republican thing. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s endgame was more elegantly executed, but it was an endgame nonetheless.
She had quieted progressive frustration two years earlier by agreeing to limit her leadership to four years, an agreement she honored when she stepped aside as Democrats’ leader after the 2022 midterm election.
When Pelosi was elected to what became her final term as speaker, in January 2021, she got just 216 votes, less than a majority of 218, in part because some people missed the vote and in part because some Democrats voted “present” to protest her.
It’s safe to assume these leadership fights will continue as long as the country is so equally divided that neither party has a solid governing majority.