Math isn’t always hard but it can get very wonky when enmeshed in the craziness that is the 118th Congress. It’s worse in the US House where the GOP’s dwindling majority has caused considerable confusion because political pundits and the media have failed to explain it properly. This is either because they don’t understand it themselves or they’re bending the numbers to suit their own narrative. Neither excuse is acceptable.
It’s time to explain it plainly so you can fact-whip the pundits and media who persist in getting it wrong.
When it comes to the US House majority, there are two ways of looking at the majority numbers. We’ll call these the Median Perspective and the Gap Perspective. Both are correct provided they are used in the right context. You’ll be an expert in using them by the time you’ve finished reading this article.
The Median Perspective
The median is the middle value in a set of numbers. For our purpose that set is the number of members in the US House which is 435. To calculate the median, we first divide our number by 2…
435 ÷ 2 = 217½
then round up our answer to a whole number: 218
That median number is also the lowest majority a party can hold in the US House. If Party A successfully elects 218 members, there will be only 217 seats left for Party B to fill.
218 + 217 = 435
In this situation, Party A will be in the majority but their majority will only be 1.
The more seats won in excess of 218, the greater the majority of the winning party. The Republicans seated 222 members after the 2022 Midterms. This is 4 over the median. When it comes to voting for motions in a full House where all 435 members are present, the Rs need a minimum of 218 ‘aye’ votes. That means that 4 of their members can vote against the motion but it will still pass if the remaining 218 vote for it.
It is this median perspective that informed the report that Rs had a slim majority of 4 after the Midterms.
But there’s more to it than that.
The Gap Perspective
The Gap Perspective focuses on how many more members the majority party has over the minority party. As we’ve already noted, 218 is the lowest majority a party can hold in the US House. For the opposing party, 217 is the highest minority they can have. This fact is central to understanding the Gap Perspective.
After the 2022 Midterms, the Rs seated 222 members – 4 above the lowest possible majority of 218 – while the Democrats seated 213 – 4 below the highest possible minority of 217. Therefore the gap between the two parties was calculated as 222 – 213 which is 9, meaning Rs had 9 more members than the Dems.
Currently, the Rs are down to 221 members while the Dems remain at 213. The gap is now 8 between the parties.
But the truly crucial point of the Gap Perspective is that it explains how the Rs can remain in the majority even if their membership drops below 218. I’ve heard pundits claim that if Rs lose their 4-member majority, the two parties will be even. That is not true and the Gap Perspective is essential to understanding why it is not true.
If Rs lost another 4 members and dropped down to a total of 217, the Dems will still have only 213. The Dems don’t magically gain a member every time the Rs lose a member. For starters, they have to wait until a special election is scheduled and then win that special election to gain another member. Even when they win the February 13 special election, that will only bring Dems up to 214 which will still be less than the Rs total unless something calamitous happens to take out 7+ Rs between December 31 and February 13.
The other important factor when considering the Gap Perspective is the movable median majority as explained in the next section.
The Movable Median Majority
Have you ever heard a pundit claim that 218 is the magic number when it comes to passing motions, bills and resolutions? That the majority party can’t pass anything if they can’t get a minimum of 218 votes? Well, the movable median majority is the graveyard where that misconception goes to die.
You see, what the pundits and media often fail to explain is that the median majority is not a fixed number in the US House. It depends entirely on the total number of current members and that total changes every time a member leaves or a member is added via a special election. 218 is the median majority only when the House has its full complement of 435 members. As of this writing, the House total is 434 members and one vacancy.
When the Rs lose a member but Dems do not gain one, there’s no real disadvantage for the Rs because the median majority also drops by 1. Let’s look at the math.
As noted above, the median is calculated by dividing the total number of members by 2. Currently, there are 221 Rs and 213 Dems…
221 + 213 = 434
434 ÷ 2 = 217 (As this is a whole number, there is no rounding up to 218.)
The Rs’ current total of 221 members remains 4 above the new median figure of 217 while the Dems, with their 213 members, remain 4 below it.
When McCarthy leaves at the end of December, this will prompt yet another adjustment to the median figure.
Rs will drop down to 220 members while Dems will remain at 213.
220 + 213 = 433 total House members with 2 vacancies yet to be filled via special election.
433 ÷ 2 = 216½ which is rounded up to 217 to get the new median majority number.
At 220 members, Rs will have just 3 over the median majority of 217 while Dems will be only 3 under the new highest minority of 216. The gap between the two parties will then come down to 7.
When the NY-03 special election is held on February 13, 2024, and Long Island elects a Dem to replace Santos, the Dems will then have 214 members to the Rs 220. The gap will then close to 6.
When Republican Bill Johnson leaves at the end of February – and providing there is no R replacement of McCarthy before then – the Rs will drop to 219 while the Dems remain at 214. The median majority will still be 217 but it could prove very hazardous for Rs.
A gap of only 5 between the two is way too close for a majority party wracked with internal bickering. They’re already panicking because they haven’t passed anything they can boast about to their constituents back home. It’s a situation they’ve brought upon themselves and it will only deteriorate further over the next two months as the pressure on them increases and internal rifts widen.
Other Fun Stuff
Rs may find themselves in an even worse position by the end of February if other fun possibilities go against them in the next couple of months. One of those is Gaetz who has earned the soubriquet HazMatt Gaetz by being toxic to those on both sides of the aisle.
The House Ethics Committee has been investigating him for several months. Indeed, it was this investigation that prompted HazMatt to oust McCarthy to punish him for failing to put an end to the investigation.
Side Note: No Speaker has the authority to interfere in Ethics Committee investigations so McCarthy was, on that occasion, observing House rules.
HazMatt hoped to get his gullible pal Gym Jordan elected as Speaker but that plan fell through and the Rs landed themselves with Mike ‘Moses’ Johnson instead. I doubt Johnson wants to help HazMatt so the Ethics Committee even now is likely putting the final touches on their HazMatt findings and their final report may well include a recommendation to expel. It’s certainly that which Gaetz fears most.
Another bright spot on the 2024 horizon is Special Counsel Jack Smith. In January this year, he hired Raymond Hulser, who succeeded Smith as Chief of the Public Integrity unit at DOJ, and David Harbach, also a former Public Integrity prosecutor, to lead the investigation into members of Congress – Senate and House – who are implicated in the Jan 6 sedition plot. If they are ready to indict by or before March, that could demolish the Rs majority in one dramatic move.
That is not to say that the indicted would all instantly leave Congress; on the contrary, they’re likely to hang on for as long as they can. But when they’re off attending court dates, their absences will leave the remaining GOP members very much in the minority and the Dems will take advantage of it. Won’t it be fun if Squeaker Johnson is among the first group to be indicted.
State AGs and watchdog groups like CREW could also use this opportunity to have indicted seditionists removed from 2024 ballots under Amendment 14 §3. Those states that have charged fake electors and/or are seeking to bar Trump from the ballot are the most likely ones to make such a move on indicted congressional members.
My Prediction: the resulting upheaval will give the Democrats the House majority several months before the 2024 election and Congress will at last have a worthy leader in Speaker Hakeem Jeffries.