Michael Barone: Comparing the two most Republican Houses in 70 years

Michael Barone

Michael Barone

Before Christmas, Arizona finished its 2nd Congressional District recount, showing Republican Martha McSally beating incumbent Democrat Ron Barber by 167 votes. This means there will be 247 Republicans in the House in the 114th Congress — one more than was elected to the House in the 80th Congress in 1946. It’s the most Republican House since the one elected in 1928, a year when very few of today’s voters were alive.

But while the party numbers are almost precisely the same in the Houses elected this year and 68 years ago, the composition of the two parties’ caucuses (the Republicans call theirs a conference) is sharply different.

One reason is that the reapportionment of House seats following the seven censuses from 1950 to 2010 has shifted many seats from the Northeast, Midwest and Mississippi Valley to Texas, South Atlantic and Western states.

Altogether, 100 seats have been transferred from 27 states to 17 other states. Only six small states have the same number of seats as they did in 1946. The big losers have been New York (down 18 seats), Pennsylvania (down 15), Illinois (down 8) and Ohio (down 7). The big gainers have been California (up 30), Florida (up 21) and Texas (up 15).

The House Republican Conference that assembled in January 1947 was dominated by members from New York (28), Pennsylvania (28), Illinois (20) and Ohio (19). Most came from courthouse towns and sought to roll back the New Deal. They provided the impetus behind the Taft-Hartley Act, which limited the power of labor unions — a law that passed despite Harry Truman’s veto and is still in effect today.

They had the votes to override because the House Democratic Caucus included many conservatives in 1947. A majority of its members — 117 of 189 — came from the South (defined here as the 11 old Confederate states plus West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma).

The largest state delegation was from Texas, including former and future Speaker Sam Rayburn and future President Lyndon Johnson. Only one Northern state, New York, elected more than 10 Democrats. Freshman Rep. John Kennedy’s party was outnumbered 9-5 in the Massachusetts delegation.

This 80th House provided crucial bipartisan support for Truman’s Cold War policies, including the expensive Marshall Plan. One Michigan Republican who balked was beaten in the next primary by a young lawyer named Gerald Ford.

Bipartisanship was possible on contemporary issues because the party divisions reflected the distant past. The Democratic Party, which 85 years earlier had been skeptical about waging the Civil War, carried Southern seats 117-11. The Republican Party, which had backed the war, carried Northern seats 235-72.

The divisions in the 114th House, in contrast, reflect contemporary divisions. The House Republican Conference is tilted toward the South, but not as heavily as Democrats were in 1947. Of its 247 members, 114 are from Southern states, and its largest state delegations are from Texas (25) and Florida (217). Republicans’ margin in Southern seats is 114-38. Most Southern Democrats are from black- or Hispanic-majority districts or those with a Northern cultural flavor (South Florida, Northern Virginia, Austin).

But Democrats lead in Northern seats by only 150-133. Northern Republicans come mainly from suburbs and exurbs, not small towns as in 1947. They tend to represent growing areas rather than those that are losing steam.

The House Democratic Caucus is heavily coastal. The largest state delegation by far is from California, with 39 seats — one-fifth of the total. This helps to account for Nancy Pelosi’s strength in her caucus, though she lost a key committee fight last month. Almost half of the Democratic gain in seats from 1946 to 2014 came in the three West Coast states, with most of the rest along the Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Maryland.

As was apparent on the Cromnibus vote, when 67 Republicans bucked their leadership and 57 Democrats differed from Pelosi, neither conference nor caucus is monolithic. But these differences are more about tactics than goals.

The House Democratic Caucus almost unanimously supports big government policies and cultural liberalism. The more diverse (on ideas and increasingly in race, ethnicity and gender) House Republican Conference favors reining in big government but lacks clear consensus on how to do it.

House Republicans lost their majority in 1948 but made important changes in public policy that were permanent or long lasting. Pelosi tried to do the same in 2009 and 2010. Can House Republicans succeed in reversing or significantly adjusting those policies? Not clear.

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