Partisan Control in the Congress

Some political history,

My post about Richard Shelby, as well as some conversations in various threads of late, brings me to present the following graph, which is the partisan breakdown of the US House of Representatives from 1933-2021:

Data Source: Party Divisions of the House of Representatives, 1789 to Present

After a period of Republican dominance in the House that started in 1919, the advent of the Great Depression ushered in the FDR era with the 1932 election. We can slice up time post-1933 and prior to 1995 in a couple of ways; both are worth noting. First, from 1933 until 1995, the House was controlled by the Democratic Party for all but two congresses, the 80th (1947-1949) during the Truman administration and the 83rd (1953-1955), brought to power on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s coattails. Second, one could simply note that from the 84th until the 104th, Democrats had solid control (as indicated by the blue lines on the graph).

In other words, one can look at 1933-1995 as an era of Democratic electoral dominance in the House with two aberrations) or one can simply focus on the forty years wherein there was no Republican majority in the House (and therefore no chance for Republicans to have unified government), and indeed, seeming precious little chance to ever control the chamber. Note that in 102nd Congress (1991-1993), Democrats had a 100 seat margin on the Republicans (267-167 plus an independent freshman named Bernie Sanders).

Indeed, the average advantage for the Ds from 1957-1993 was 90.21 seats. The immediate post-Watergate elections saw margins of 147, 149, and 121 until Reagan’s election in 1980 brought the margin down to 51 before it shot back up to 103 after the 1982 mid-terms.

Further, it is worth noting that the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress from 1955 to 1981. The Congress was divided from 1981 to 1985 and then Democratic control returned until 1995.

Here is a visual map of partisan control of the chambers from 1933 to the present. Blue is Dem control, red in GOP control, and purple is split control. 2001 is yellow because the Senate changed partisan control twice during the 107th).

Why bring all of this up?

A major reason, which fits things I have written about for some time, is that post-1994 is plain and simply a different partisan era than 1933-1994. A lot of the above is because the post-Civil War South was a one-party region and that one party was the Democrats (until 1994).* This meant, among other things, that the Democratic majorities in congress consisted of a coalitional party that ranged from quite liberal to quite conservative. That has rather obvious implications for legislating in general, but also changes the political presentation of issues to the broader public.

The party system as it existed during this era meant that a lot of the pathologies of separation of power systems that I write about with some frequency were ameliorated in large measure. But as the parties have sorted in a more natural ideological way, those pathologies become more problematic. For an example of what I am talking about, see my post Party Trumps Institutional Separation.

There is also a discussion to be had about the degree to which the pre-1994 party system was the reason that the problems of presidentialism in general that political scientist Juan Linz identified decades ago did not affect the US. Indeed, political scientist John Carey wrote about Linz this week in WaPo: Did Trump prove that governments with presidents just don’t work? and he alluded to this here:

Linz also pointed to America’s “uniquely diffuse” political parties, each containing members with a wide variety of views, which facilitated ad hoc compromises on policy, both within Congress and between Congress and the president.

[…]

And even as Linz was writing, the era of flexible parties was approaching its end. Democrats and Republicans diverged in the 1990s, growing more internally unified and more hardened against each other (there are virtually no socially liberal Republican politicians, for example, or pro-life Democrats).

Amid ferocious polarization and gridlock, Linz’s explanations for why America was less dysfunctional than other presidential systems no longer apply, even in the absence of a coup.

I may write more about the Carey piece later.


A connection to a long-term theme that some readers frequently focus on, which is the question of why people might vote Republican, I think this history is one illustration.

It was not an unreasonable position for a lot of voters to take in the 1980s that whatever problems existed in terms of federal domestic policy was the Democrat’s fault. After all, look at how long they had been in control of it.

Yes, this is a simplistic formulation that ignores an awful lot of subtleties. Nonetheless, it was also true: the Democratic Party dominated the House from 1933 to 1995 and dominated the Senate for almost as long.

In other words, while Watergate would have had a clear anti-Republican influence on a host of voters in the early 1970s, the economy of the mid-to-late 1970s, including the less-than-successful Carter administration coupled with the long-term power of the Democrats would have led the Republicans to be in a favorable position in the 1980s.

This meant the ability to blame the Democrats for any number of things (and to point to Republican presidents as bulwarks against Democratic majorities in the House). That logic certainly helped fuel some of the migration of conservative Democrats to the Republican Party in the 1980s and into the 1990s.

It shows, also, why New Gingrich had the cachet in the party that he had, and that he is in some ways still living off of. Gingrich was the Minority Whip going into the 1994 election and was seen to be the architect of the “Republican Revolution.” He was seen as having delivered Republican control after forty years and for helping to usher in the first era of GOP dominance since the 1920s.


US Party System EvolutionMore could be said, but this has already gotten to be a lengthy post. At a minimum, I have been meaning to post a version of that graph above for a while. It fits in with a post I wrote back in August: US Party System Evolution (the maps in that post make for a really useful addition to the data presented above).


*I am speaking here of the congressional level. The shift was already underway at the presidential level and it wouldn’t filter all the way down to the state and local level in some southern states until the early 2000s. For example, the Texas House of Representatives did not flip to R control until 2003. In Alabama, that flip did not happen until 2011. Indeed, in Alabama from 1999-2002 the governor’s office and both chambers of the legislature were in D hands.

FILED UNDER: Congress, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Kylopod says:

    Not long ago I watched on Youtube some recordings of Election Night coverage from the 1980s. One thing that struck me was how much the anchors took for granted the level of ticket-splitting at the time. Whenever they turned from the presidential race to discussing downballot races for Senate, governorship, and so on, there was an unstated assumption that the presidential election had almost no relevance to those other races; it was like they were entering a totally different universe. Reagan and Bush could win a state by a massive margin while a Democrat running for some other office in the state could win by an equally or bigger margin. For example, Al Gore won his first election to the Senate in 1984 by a 27-point margin while Reagan simultaneously won Tennessee at the presidential level by a 16-point margin. In the course of Reagan’s 49-state landslide the Dems didn’t do so badly downballot. Indeed, they flipped three Senate seats while losing just one.

    I think part of what was happening during this time was that the local Dems in Southern states and elsewhere were able to build a brand for themselves as being different and separate from the national party that was nominating candidates like Mondale and Dukakis. Today, you see a little of that–think John Bel Edwards–but it’s much more limited. The most notable example of ticket-splitting in 2020, Susan Collins’ successful 9-point reelection (still by far her worst performance since the first time she was elected in 1996) in a state Biden won by 9 points, is the exception that proves the rule, and the discrepancy isn’t anywhere near as big as it was in the past.

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  2. gVOR08 says:

    Let us all fervently hope that D control pf the presidency and both houses is a return to the normal of the last nearly a century and not an aberration.

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  3. Kylopod says:

    @gVOR08:

    Let us all fervently hope that D control pf the presidency and both houses is a return to the normal of the last nearly a century and not an aberration.

    The entire point of this post is why that’s unlikely to occur–and if it does somehow occur, it’ll be for different reasons than in the past. That long period of Democratic dominance in Congress (1930-1994) involved a much different Democratic Party than exists today. A lot of people today still like to quote Will Rogers’ “I belong to no organized party, I’m a Democrat” even though it is in many ways an outdated reference. Back then the Dems truly were an incoherent mishmash. They included New Dealers and anti-New Dealers, white supremacists and civil-rights activists. Not only were there conservatives in the party, but people routinely described as part of the “far right.” Indeed, for much of the 20th-century period in which Dems controlled Congress, there was still considered to be a functional conservative majority. Remember, Phil Gramm was still a Democrat when he cosponsored Reagan’s first budget.

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