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Most House Democrats Will Be in Majority for First Time Ever

In contrast, most House Republicans have never been in the minority

New York Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Grace Meng have never served in the majority, with both first elected in 2012. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New York Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Grace Meng have never served in the majority, with both first elected in 2012. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Most House Democrats in the next Congress will be new to the majority and an overwhelming majority of Republicans will be new to the minority — a dynamic that could create a steep learning curve for members as they grapple with party strategy and messaging changes under the new power structure.

Even more significant is that a majority of leadership candidates for both parties have not served in a Democrat-led House.

Republicans have controlled the House since 2011, and next year’s power shift will be new territory for old and new members alike. 

Of the 227 Democrats who are guaranteed to be serving in the 116th Congress — 10 House races remained uncalled as of Tuesday morning — 58 percent will be new to the majority. That includes 79 members who have served in Congress already and 53 new members. Only 95 Democrats returning next year have experienced life in the majority. 

The numbers of Republicans serving in the minority for the first time is even more staggering. Of the 198 Republicans elected so far, 73 percent will be new to the minority. 

Even a majority of returning Republican members — 112 — will be serving in the minority for the first time; another 32 are incoming freshmen. Only 54 Republicans serving next Congress have been in the minority before. 

“There will be a learning curve on both sides,” said Molly Reynolds, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution.


Role reversal

The House is a majority-run institution that, unlike the Senate, provides the minority with little power. 

Democrats who have never served in the majority don’t know what it’s like for their party to be able to decide what issues committees get to work on, what bills come to the floor and what amendments are made in order, Reynolds said. 

“Republicans, the flip side is true,” she said. “You’ve only ever been in the chamber where your party gets to make those decisions.”

House Republicans will have to adjust their strategy and messaging since they’ll no longer be operating from the same playbook as they have the past two years under unified Republican control of Congress and the White House. 

“They have mainly been focusing on trying to legislate,” Reynolds said. 

While that would seemingly be the Democrats’ role in the majority, they won’t be able to do too much of that with Republicans still in control of the Senate and the White House.

Rather, much of the Democrats’ legislative and messaging decisions will be aimed at laying the groundwork for what would happen if they have unified party control in 2020, Reynolds said. 

Toward the end of the Obama administration, Republicans, who controlled both chambers of Congress by then, tried that — to varying degrees of success — with “trial runs” on repealing the 2010 health care law and other priorities, she said. 

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Republicans will also need to familiarize themselves with procedural tools of the minority, like the motion to recommit — a move to send legislation back to the committee, which gives minority-party lawmakers the opportunity to suggest how they would have handled the issue. 

Another major difference in the parties flipping power is the operation of committees. Democrats will get more seats and staff, while Republicans will get fewer. 

There are other “more mundane logistical things” that the majority party benefits from, such as better office space and preferential treatment for room rentals, Reynolds said. 

While there would seem to be a major experience gap, some members have backgrounds serving in state and local legislative bodies where they’ve experienced the power structure they’ll encounter in the House next year.

Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, who came to Congress in 2013, noted that he spent some time in the majority during his time in the Wisconsin State Assembly.

The co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus also said that Democrats are more prepared for holding the majority because they’ve been proactively developing policy proposals while in the minority. 

“The good part is our caucus has always been not just about opposition but about trying to put forward progressive, bold ideas,” he said. “Now the challenge will be to convince our colleagues.”

For Democrats, working to develop consensus on legislation, rather than vote uniformly — or occasionally, not — against Republican bills will also be new to many members. 

Leadership hopefuls

Interestingly enough, most of the Democrats running for leadership positions in the House have never served in the majority.

That doesn’t include the candidates for the top three positions — speaker, majority leader and majority whip — who have all served in the majority before.

The races for the No. 4 and No. 5 slots each include one candidate who has served in the majority — New Mexico’s Ben Ray Luján for assistant Democratic leader and California’s Barbara Lee for Democratic Caucus chair — and one candidate who hasn’t — Rhode Island’s David Cicilline for assistant leader and New York’s Hakeem Jeffries for caucus chair. 

Both candidates for Democratic Caucus vice chair,  Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts and Pete Aguilar of California, have never served in the majority. 

Nor have any of the four candidates running to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Reps. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York and Suzan DelBene and Denny Heck of Washington were all elected in 2012 and have only ever campaigned from the minority position. 

Likewise, the only declared Republican running to chair the National Republican Congressional Committee, Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, has never served in the minority. He was first elected in 2014.

And the three candidates running for House Republican Conference leadership positions — Wyoming’s Liz Cheney for chair, North Carolina’s Mark Walker for vice chair and Missouri’s Jason Smith for secretary — have also never been in the minority. 

Only the Republican candidates seeking the top two leadership positions — California’s Kevin McCarthy and Ohio’s Jim Jordan running for minority leader and Louisiana’s Steve Scalise running for minority whip — have served in the minority before.

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