The House is not in session. Senate is not in session.
Header

Wonkology: Discharge Petition

Back to News

June 5, 2018

A procedural mechanism in the US House of Representatives to allow a majority of members to bypass committees of jurisdiction and House leadership to bring a bill to the House floor for consideration.

Genesis

Under regular order, all new legislation gets referred to the appropriate committee (or committees) of jurisdiction. Next, legislation must pass that committee of jurisdiction before it can move to the House floor. In order to reach the floor, House leadership must also make time for consideration of the bill, which allows them to exercise significant control of what bills move when. Speaker Ryan and his recent Republican predecessors have informally followed the Hastert Rule, which requires a "majority of the majority," to allow a bill to come to a vote in the House. As a result, legislation that may have majority support in the full house – counting both Democrats and Republicans – would not move forward in the absence of majority support of the House Republican Caucus.

A discharge petition allows circumvention of this process so that a particular piece of legislation can be voted upon by the full House.

New Rules

To curb the power of then-Speaker Cannon, the House created what was the predecessor of the discharge petition in 1910. The House formalized the process in 1924. Discharge petitions request action on a particular bill and must have an absolute majority (218). The Clerk of the House places the motion to discharge on the House Discharge Calendar once a majority of representatives publicly express their support. The motion must remain open at least seven legislative days before the legislation can be brought to the floor for a vote on a "discharge day" (the second or fourth Monday of each month). Then, the House votes the legislation up or down by simple majority.

Discharge petitions are rare because they require representatives of the party in control of Congress to openly defy their elected leaders. They are also seldom successful. In the latter half of the 20th century, discharge petitions only worked in 22 instances. President Johnson leveraged a discharge petition to force the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the House floor. Since 2000, discharge petitions have only been used to pass the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform in 2002 and to revive the Export-Import Bank in 2015.

One Kiss

Frustrated by the lack of action on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, moderate House Republicans began the process in May to secure the support needed to force a vote on immigration legislation. Assuming all House Democrats support the discharge petition, 25 Republicans would have to buck party leadership to get the 218 votes needed to bring immigration legislation to the House floor. All but three Democrats have signed on so far, and supporters have said that they have enough Republicans to get to 218.

This discharge petition would force a vote on a "queen of the hill"-style rule, which would then compel a series of votes on competing immigration plans. Frustrated at being forced to move forward by a handful of his own members, Speaker Ryan and House leadership are attempting to negotiate a bill that would pass with majority Republican support. This discharge petition could get to 218 signatories this week, which could trigger a vote on the next "discharge day" – as soon as June 25.