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What Is a Discharge Petition Anyway?

By David Hawkings and Thomas McKinless

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Senior editor David Hawkings breaks down the seldom-used House tactic that members are wielding to try to force an immigration vote to the floor: the discharge petition. Below is a transcript of the video: HAWKINGS: There’s only so much that a group of disaffected House members can do when their efforts to push controversial legislation get bottled up by the leadership. There is one creaky, politically risky and rarely successful piece of parliamentary machinery at their disposal, though. It’s the discharge petition. And here’s how it works. The procedure has been around in its current form essentially since the New Deal. If a bill has been stalled without action in a legislative committee for at least 30 days — or if the Rules Committee has kept a bill bottled up on its way to the floor for more than seven days, then members can get behind a motion to discharge the legislation. It’s kind of like a depth charge — it dislodges the bill from the murky depths and propels it toward the House floor. It used to be that dissident members could get on one of these petitions in secret — their identities unmasked only when the magical 218 signatures were secured. But 25 years ago, new transparency was put on the process. Now, the names of the signatories, and the order in which they sign, are available for all to see on the website of the Clerk of the House. This makes it easier for both sides to apply their well-practiced discharge petition pressure tactics. “Now that you have dared to sign, the retaliation will be swift!” the majority leadership can say to members of the rank and file who break ranks. “How come you haven’t signed? We know that you’re with us,” the dissidents will say to their super-cautious allies. In the rare instances when an absolute majority of the House has signed on, there’s still a seven-day waiting period to give those committees one more chance to look at least like they’re acting on their own without their hands being forced. Then, any signer can make a motion on the floor to discharge. It gets debated for just 20 minutes, on the second or fourth Mondays of each month — the cutoff being before the final week of the session. Once that formality is done, the controversial measure is supposed to get debated right away. It sounds a bit convoluted. But when a grass-roots majority wants something that the bosses don’t want, then getting through all those hoops should be pretty straightforward. Right? Isn’t that what we saw recently with the growing momentum for a Republican-led discharge petition that would force a wide-ranging debate on immigration? In fact, only twice in the last quarter-century has a successful discharge petition led to the enactment of an actual law. There was the campaign finance overhaul of 2002, and the revival of the Export-Import Bank in 2015. Before those, the last totally successful drive was in 1960. With both of the most recent examples, it was a rump group of Republicans who defied their leadership and put legislation on the floor that was going to pass with mostly Democratic votes. That sort of insurrection, though, usually gets tamped down with this pretty solid political argument: What’s the good of being in the majority party, and having our folks run the House, unless we’re going to be able to set the legislative agenda — and unless we stick together, we’re going to effectively hand over our majority powers to the other side.

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