The 117th Congress Begins

Last weekend, newly elected members of Congress were sworn into office, marking the start of the 117th Congress.  While the balance of power remained largely unchanged in the House of Representatives, the Georgia runoff election could result in significant changes for the Senate. The House of Representatives swore in sixty freshman members last Sunday, reshaping the composition of the chamber for the new session. Here’s where both chambers stand now:

House of Representatives

  • There were forty-nine open seats in the 2020 Election 
  • A freshman class of fifteen Democrats and forty-five Republicans were elected in 2020
  • Twelve incumbent Democrats were defeated by challengers, producing a net gain of eleven seats for Republicans
  • Composition of House: 222 Democrats and 211 Republicans


  • There were thirty-three seats contested in the 2020 Election
  • Five defeats resulted in a switch of party affiliation by four Republicans and one Democrat
  • Composition of Senate: fifty Democrats and fifty Republicans
  • Democrats gain majority via tiebreaker (tiebreaker through Vice President-elect Harris)

What it Means

On January 20, after President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office, the Democratic Party will control all three branches of government. A switch in majority rule brings far reaching impacts within a legislative body, much of which comes through assignments to Congressional Committees. Both the Senate and House of Representatives contain several committees of jurisdiction that address policy issues within their specific purview. Procedures for Congressional Committees are similar to those governing all of Congress in that they rely on party control and seniority. When a party holds a majority in either chamber of Congress, they will have enough members to ensure a majority on each individual committee. Committee chairs hold considerable power through their authority over many aspects governing the committee, including the legislative calendar. When one party sets the agenda across every committee within a chamber of Congress, their initiatives receive the most attention. However, Democrats will possess a simple majority of fifty and any legislation requiring significant appropriations must have sixty votes.

With Democrats gaining a new majority in the Senate, committee leadership will change across the board inside the Senate, opening up new lanes for legislative priorities supported by Democrats. Leadership within the Democratic Party will reshuffle committees, seating senior democrats in each committee chair. Additionally, requiring only a simple majority of fifty votes, President-elect Biden’s appointees should be confirmed without issue under a Democrat majority. 

Despite a small decrease in her party’s majority after the 2020 election, Nancy Pelosi earned another term as Speaker of the House. The Speaker spent most of 2019 pursuing legislation to provide relief aid in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, facing difficult political obstacles in the Senate along the way.

The Speakers two-year term began last Sunday and will conclude at the end of the 117th Congress.