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Sometimes, the Dissidents Do Leadership a Solid

As immigration debate shows, rare House discharge petitions can force the majority out of a self-made jam

A discharge petition filed by GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo has put pressure on his own party’s leaders to strike a deal on immigration — but they may not hold it against him, Hawkings writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A discharge petition filed by GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo has put pressure on his own party’s leaders to strike a deal on immigration — but they may not hold it against him, Hawkings writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It sounds like something that might be overheard at the congressional appliance dealership: Power abhors a vacuum, especially when there’s a political mess overdue for cleanup, and a great tool for fixing all that is a discharge petition.

It’s also an apt summation of what’s going on now with the Republican catharsis over immigration — which is notably similar to what went down three years ago, during the last House majority leadership interregnum, and also to another fabled GOP rift back in 2002.

House Republicans have set aside two hours on Thursday to take yet another shot at settling an internal disagreement that has riven their conference and complicated electoral prospects like nothing else during the past dozen years: Should people in the United States illegally be treated with nothing but tall-wall discipline, or should at least some be afforded a pathway of welcome?

Central to the moment is one of the most obscure, potent and rarely successful mechanisms in the parliamentary playbook. If the lawmakers somehow strike a deal among themselves, the threat of a discharge petition will be the reason. If an impasse remains, the far more likely outcome, the momentum behind a discharge petition will force the issue by the end of the month.

What Is a Discharge Petition Anyway?

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Boiled down to its essence, a discharge petition is a vehicle for a grass-roots majority of the House to propel legislation onto the floor over the objections of the committee chairman or the leadership.

In this case, 213 members, 23 of them Republicans, have signed a document that would force a wide-open immigration debate. Four quite different multipronged immigration overhauls would be debated on the floor, but only the one receiving the most votes would get forwarded to the Senate. (The nickname for this, in parliamentary circles, is the not-at-all-appliance-store-sounding term “Queen of the Hill.”)

Another clutch of Republicans, more than enough to create a majority of the entire house, are keeping their pens in their pockets until Thursday’s meeting, out of deference to the leadership.

If the ink dries on the magic number of signatures this week, the climactic debate would begin June 25. (There’s a seven-day waiting period, after which discharge petitions are in order only on the second and fourth Mondays of the month.)

Tugging at the leash

Right now, there is no immigration bill that can pass exclusively with GOP votes.

Leadership has been pushing a package combining full backing for President Donald Trump’s wall, deep cuts in legal immigration and permission for so-called Dreamers — those who arrived illegally as children on the arms of their parents — to renew their legal status (under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) for only relatively brief periods at a stretch.

Such a short-leash DACA revival is too draconian for many moderate Republicans. Several of them in tough re-election fights in suburban districts signed the discharge petition in hopes of putting up more votes for something that would aid their prospects in November: a pathway to citizenship for the 700,000 Dreamers enrolled in DACA.

Almost every House Democrat would vote for that, but only if it moves without authorization for the Trump wall lashed alongside. But dozens of Freedom Caucus members, tea party adherents and immigration hard-liners view anything that smacks of normalization for illegal immigrants as amnesty for criminals and a total repudiation of today’s mainstream GOP position.

It’s still not yet clear, meanwhile, whether a compromise that would get through the House with mostly Democratic votes is something that could be sold to a similar bipartisan coalition in the Senate, whether Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would even want to call it up, and whether Trump would sign it.

Letting them run

At first blush, the situation stands as the latest sign of just how weakened Speaker Paul D. Ryan has become in the two months since he announced his year-end departure. 

But there’s another explanation. Now that Ryan’s made himself a lame duck, he may be allowing this bit of convoluted legislative mechanics to help accomplish what he could not with the limited muscle mass he had even while fully in command. (He was, after all, central to bipartisan talks on an expansive immigration overhaul before he was speaker.)

And in that sense, there is a strong parallel to 2015, during the months between John A. Boehner announcing his resignation and formally turning in his speaker’s gavel. He promised to “clean the barn” of legislative detritus during that interval, and for one project he stood silently by as like-minded lawmakers deployed the discharge petition as their implement.

The cause was preservation of the Export-Import Bank, which relatively few voters care about but which has an ardent following in the business community. (The bank helps American businesses sell goods and services abroad by providing loans and financing guarantees to overseas customers — which benefits not only major exporters such as GE and Boeing, but also plenty of smaller exporters in House districts of all sorts.)

Many GOP conservatives label the Ex-Im as a prime culprit in proving taxpayer-funded corporate welfare. In this sense, the fight of three years ago fell along similar fault lines as today’s immigration split — hard-line conservatives, who drive the House agenda most of the time now, versus the previously dominant pro-business Chamber of Commerce wing.

During his long struggle to hold power by fending off attacks from his right, Boehner decided sticking up for the bank wasn’t a fight worth picking. But once he announced he was leaving, he silently countenanced a discharge petition rebellion. Within two weeks, 41 Republicans had signed — and by the time the bill actually got its vote, a majority of the majority voted for it.

Thirteen years earlier, there was no leadership power vacuum within the House GOP. But, as with immigration now, there was passionate disagreement over whether it was time to lance a policymaking boil that had festered and tormented Republicans for many years and loomed as a big midterm campaign problem. The issue then was money in politics. The leadership held fast against any changes, but after a wave of unfavorable coverage about the flow of campaign cash from corrupt corporate sources into their coffers, 19 House Republicans joined the successful discharge petition that led to the campaign finance overhaul of 2002.

The complaint from the GOP rank and file in both cases, as now, was that the dissidents had effectively turned over their majority power to the Democrats. But in the end, both results got marketed somewhat successfully as the rare triumph of bipartisanship and legislative functionality in a Congress known almost entirely for tribalism and gridlock.  

To be sure, the countervailing argument within the majority’s rank and file remains strong. The discharge petition is cumbersome and time-consuming for a reason — to reinforce the notion that members ought to think very carefully before moving to usurp perhaps the leadership’s most vital power, over setting the legislative agenda.

Far more often than not, the committee chairmen and the corner office folks get their way. While some discharge petition drives have prompted tactical reversals before the last signature was obtained — a situation that may still happen this week — there are only four instances since the system took its current form during the New Deal where a completed petition resulted in a change in law, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Before the Ex-Im and campaign finance incidents, the last such successful drive was in 1960.

Ryan: Gambit to Bring Immigration Bills to Floor Is ‘Big Mistake’

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