When Virginia State Senator Jennifer McClellan is sworn in to the House of Representatives tonightthe lower house of Congress will be something it hasn’t been in a long time: full.
The last time the US had a full House, with all 435 voting representatives seated, was nearly three and a half years ago. And even then, it wasn’t crowded for long. When Wisconsin representative Sean Duffy resigned the September 23, 2019, to take care of your newborn baby with a heart defect, he left a house that had held 435 members for six days. In the 1,261 days since, there has been at least one empty seat in the house.
Although this has been an unusually long period in modern times, the timing and number of vacancies are usually reduced to chance. Members sometimes resign and leave office before their term expires, either because of another job opportunity (in or out of government) or because of scandal. Less predictable circumstances, such as a member’s health problems or even death, also affect whether the house is full. The current Congress (the 118th) started with an empty seat because Virginia Rep. Donald McEachin won re-election in November 2022 but died. later that month; McClellan was chosen on February 21 to fill his old position.
And when vacancies overlap, periods like the current number of musical chairs can occur. Duffy’s resignation came less than a week after the House returned to full strength for the first time since January 2017 (about two and a half years). The Wisconsin governor scheduled a special election for May 2020 to fill Duffy’s seat, but at the time of that contest, five others the seats had become vacant due to resignation or deaths. And while the 2020 general election held elections for 435 seats, two were left vacant at the start of the 117th Congress due to the death of Louisiana representative-elect Luke Letlow in December 2020 and an extremely close election in New York’s 22nd District who retarded the seat from Rep. Claudia Tenney. In the spring of 2021, appointments to the Biden administration opened positions in Louisiana, New Mexico other Ohioand a series of other resignations and deaths occurred: even in the the last days of the Outgoing Congress in December 2022.
But a trend that isn’t necessarily due to chance may also be contributing to longer vacancies, reducing the likelihood that all 435 positions will be filled. States have been taking longer to hold special elections for vacancies than in the past, both because elections now take longer due to laws regarding overseas voting and expanded voting by mail, as well as due to maneuvering Governors’ policies to delay filling a post that is likely to go to the opposition party.
Before we get too comfortable though, this full house will soon turn into a weaker poker hand. That’s because Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island announced on February 21 that he would resign effective June 1 to become CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. It is not clear when Rhode Island will hold a special election for Cicilline’s seat, but it might not be until later this year. If that’s the case, that would leave plenty of time for other members to quit, or for something unexpected to happen. One way or another though, it looks like our full house won’t last long.