Dem 51
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GOP 49
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The Butterfly Congress

The butterfly effect is a concept that says small far-away effects can have grave local consequences—like a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil causing a hurricane in Florida. There are plenty of examples of it. For example, if Eli Whitney had never invented the cotton gin in 1794 (and nobody else had invented it later), cotton farming in the South would not have been economical, slavery might well have gone into decline due to not being economically viable, and the Civil War might have been avoided.

Right now, and in the recent past, control of Congress has been so close that tiny events that would otherwise be unimportant have become like the butterfly. If the Democrats had 55 seats in the Senate, nobody except her immediate family would care much about whether Dianne Feinstein showed up for work. But since her vote on the Senate Judiciary Committee is critical for approving judges, a lot of people care.

The current situation is abnormal. The House and Senate majorities during the past 30 years have been exceptionally small by historical standards. In the 12 congressional elections since 2001, one party got to 55 Senate seats only three times. In six of the past 12 sessions, the Senate majority party held 52 seats or fewer six times. In contrast, from 1981 to 2001, the majority party had 55 seats or more seven of the 10 times. From 1961 to 1980, the majority party had 55 seats nine of the 10 times.

The House is just as tight. Now the Republicans have a five-seat majority. Before this session, Democrats had a five-seat majority. From 1955 through 1994, the majority party often had a majority of 60+ seats.

Because majorities are so small now, the parties are fighting over every scrap. The recent Supreme Court decision about one seat in Alabama is suddenly a really big deal. Both parties are using every tool they have to gain a small advantage now, including mid-cycle redistricting, which could happen in North Carolina or New York or both.

Maybe something will break this WW I-style trench warfare, but it seems unlikely anytime soon because of two powerful trends. First, the country is hardening into two immutable blocs, one red and one blue, with almost no movement. That is true in terms of states, but also at the county level, with urban and suburban counties being blue and rural counties being red, no matter the overall color of the state. Second, split-ticket voting has gone the way of the dodo. Almost no one now says: "I vote for the best candidate, irrespective of party." That used to be normal. Only 23 House members won despite their district supporting the other party's presidential candidate. Democrats hold 48 of the 50 Senate seats in Biden states and Republicans hold 47 of the 50 Senate seats in Trump states.

Everything is now stable. Democrats win blue districts and states and Republicans win red districts and states. Only three states are really on knife edge in presidential elections: Arizona, Wisconsin, and Georgia. Maybe in a blue wave, North Carolina. Paradoxically, this great stability nationally has led to instability in Congress, where half a dozen members can hold the House and the country hostage because every vote matters in the House. And it looks like no change in the situation is in the offing. (V)

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