Perhaps only Congress can invent a tool that it fully expects will rarely perform its intended function. It’s called the discharge petition, a device designed to dislodge bills stuck in committee. This year, House Democrats have filed three such petitions on issues they hope will propel them back to majority status in the midterm elections — a minimum wage increase, an immigration overhaul and unemployment compensation.
The original House discharge rule was adopted in 1910 as a further blow for majority rule just three months after minority Democrats and insurgent Republicans ousted Speaker Joe Cannon as Rules Committee chairman. Under the modern version of the rule, adopted in 1931, a member can file a petition on a motion to discharge any bill that has been pending in committee at least 30 legislative days or on a special rule for consideration of such a bill if the rule has been in the Rules Committee for at least seven legislative days. The advantage of discharging a special rule is that it keeps the process alive even if the bill is reported from committee. A petition directly discharging a bill from committee is dead once the committee reports the measure.
When a petition gains 218 signatures (a full House majority), the motion to discharge is placed on the discharge calendar. After seven legislative days it can be called up on the second or fourth Monday of the month by any member who signed the petition. If the motion is adopted after 20 minutes of debate, the House proceeds immediately to consider the bill or special rule.
On Feb. 26, Democratic Rep. Timothy H. Bishop of New York filed a discharge petition on a bill introduced last year by Education and the Workforce Committee ranking Democrat George Miller of California to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. The petition, filed at the clerk’s desk at the front of the House chamber, currently has 195 of the requisite 218 signatures.
Because Bishop filed his petition directly on the Miller bill and not on a special rule, he is counting heavily on Education and the Workforce Republicans not reporting the bill to vitiate the discharge process. Should the Bishop petition succeed, the House would proceed to consider the bill in the Committee of the Whole subject to up to one hour of debate per member, followed by an open amendment process under the 5-minute rule (an unintended filibuster?)
Coincidentally, the first discharge petition to succeed in the enactment of a law occurred on the very first federal minimum wage law, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. It was an unusual situation because the Democratic majority was twice forced to dislodge a special rule from the Rules Committee for consideration of the Senate-passed 40-cents an hour minimum wage bill reported by the House Labor Committee. In 1937, the Rules Committee was under the control of a conservative coalition of Democrats and Republicans reflecting in part a backlash in Congress against President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempted packing of the Supreme Court.
Because the minimum wage bill was recommitted to the Labor Committee after the first discharge success, a second petition was filed in the next session on a new special rule for the same bill after the Labor Committee again reported it. Both discharge moves were led by Labor Committee Chairman Mary T. Norton, a fiery liberal Democrat from New Jersey. The bill’s second iteration scaled-back the earlier 40-cents an hour minimum wage to 20 cents. It overwhelmingly passed the House and became law after a conference with the Senate.
Miller and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, both retiring “Watergate Babies” (class of 1974), succeeded in bringing President Barack Obama around this year to their $10.10 minimum wage bills from the $9 hourly wage the president advocated just a year ago. Miller, former chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, is rounding-out the circle begun by his 1930s counterpart, Chairman Norton.
Historically, discharge petitions are exercises in futility given majority party opposition. Since 1931, 637 discharge petitions have been filed, including nine in this Congress. Only 47 have reached the discharge calendar — none in the past decade. Only three discharged bills have become law although other targeted discharge measures have been enacted using alternative procedures. Nonetheless, the device remains a useful tool in rallying House minority party members, pressuring vulnerable majority party members, mobilizing grass-roots supporters, raising campaign funds from allied interest groups and educating voters on major issues dividing the parties.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.