A Bit of Pointless Congressional Trivia

In light of last night’s results, a friend of mine on Facebook asked (perhaps rhetorically),  “When was the last time we had a Democratic president and senate, but a Republican house?” Having just come from the gym and not quite ready to settle back into my homework yet, I thought I’d research the answer to that as a little mental break. Suffice it to say, it took me much longer than I expected, but was a lot more fun, too.

You would think, for sure, that  it would be easy to find the answer, but it seems it’s not. This chart goes back to 1945 and shows it hasn’t happened since then. But before that, the data get a little trickier to come by; all the info (back to 1870 anyway) is here, although not in a form that lends itself nicely to answering our question. Usually I am pretty good at digging up data online, but I was at a loss for the right reference source. A good almanac or poli-sci textbook seemed called for, but I couldn’t find such a thing (side note: if you know of one, tell me!)

Anyway, manual inspection of the afore-referenced data shows that the most recent quasi-occurance of this was in the 65th congress, when Woodrow Wilson was President, Democrats controlled the senate and Republicans had a plurality in the house.

But I say “quasi-occurance” because the existence of a progressive party (which supported the Democrats) gave them de facto, if not mathematical, control of the chamber. That seemed like cheating, so I kept going: in the 52nd congress the house and senate were aligned correctly, but the president (Benjamin Harrison) was a Republican. Before that, the 47th congress was again aligned with a Dem senate and Republican house (itself a rare occurrence, apparently!) under Garfield/Arthur, but both were, again, Republicans. Remember that by now we’re way back in the day before the 17th amendment, so senators aren’t even elected by popular vote at this point.

At this point, my previous datasource dried up, so I resorted to just looking up “39th congress” and then “38th congress” and so on on Wikipedia–thank you, high speed wifi. Finally, in the 36th Congress, I found that the Democrat Buchanan presided over a Democratic senate and a house which the Republicans controlled. However, if one still wanted to nitpick, one could point out that the Republicans still didn’t actually have  majority there, as the Know-Nothings and the Opposition Party (yes, that’s how far back we’ve gone) controlled 25 of the 234 seats, and a few other minor parties held seats as well. And of course if one tries to go back farther, the name “Republican party” quickly ceases to exist.

So unless I’ve missed something, then it’s been 150 years since a party called the “Democrats” has controlled the presidency and the senate but a party called the “Republicans” has controlled the house —  and of course, that long ago the party ideologies associated with the names were entirely different from today. And if you want to get technical, it seems to me that there has never before been a situation where “Democrats” have had control of the senate and White House but “Republicans” have had a majority in the house.

That sure surprises me. I would have expected that to have happened at some point in the last century at least, if not in the last half-century when the modern party names still had a somewhat similar meaning. After all, the opposite scenario has occurred several times, most recently under Reagan in the 99th congress. I guess the secret is that Democrats have controlled the house for a vastly disproportionate amount of time in recent history,  and the White House has belongs slightly more frequently to the Republicans, making the whole thing seem less likely. Still, there are only 8 possible permutations, and you would think all of them might have played out at some point during the past, you know, 150 years. I know that the control of each body is not independent of the others, but if they were, the odds of having 75 congresses go by without seeing this occur would be well, well below your odds of personally winning the lottery. What a curious fact.


I did miss something– another fleeting technicality, but it’s there. For a whopping 17 days during the lame duck period at the end of Clinton’s presidency (the 107th congress), the Republicans controlled the house but Al Gore’s tie-breaking vote in the Senate gave the Democrats “control”–even though no one had an outright majority.

Still, the point remains that there has never  before been a time when a Democrat was in the white house, the Democrats had a majority in the senate, and the Republicans had a majority in the house. I still find that odd.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

One Response to A Bit of Pointless Congressional Trivia

  1. Moominmamma says:

    Pretty impressive research there, and yeah, it is interesting that this has never happened before. I don’t think it’s going to be pretty, so we’ll probably all end up hoping it will never happen again.

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