By Jake Lestock
As of today, the 114th Congress has enacted 72 bills into law. Almost a year into its term, Congress seems poised to enact the fewest number of bills in congressional history.
Without the approval of House committee chairmen or leadership, a large number of bills never see the light of day in committee, much less on the House floor, regardless of how much support the legislation has from membership.
Therefore, many bills that have considerable support have been trapped in the legislative process for some time. So, what can they do?
A discharge petition is a rare tool that any member of the House can file to bypass the roadblocks in a committee or by the speaker.
The original House discharge rule was adopted in 1910 to drive another blow to the majority rule just 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 days.
The member is then given 30 days to gather an absolute majority vote, or 218 signatures, of the House. If the petition is successful, the bill is automatically moved out of committee and onto the House floor for a vote, even if leaders who control the committee or House floor oppose the measure.
Since the present form of discharge rule was adopted, more than 600 discharge petitions have been filed according to the Congressional Research Service. A successful discharge petition is typically viewed an embarrassment to the majority leadership, or to a committee chairman, as it circumvents the committee process that they control. As a result, members of the majority party are usually hesitant to support something that challenges their own party leadership, while placing their legislation in jeopardy.
That being the case, successful discharge petitions are incredibly rare. Only seven petitions have received the required 218 signatures in the past 30 years and even if a discharge petition is successful and reaches the floor, it is even more uncommon for this bill to actually become a law. The last recent successful discharge petition was the Shays-Meehan/McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002.
Versions of the discharge petition also exist in state legislatures. These state versions similarly force bills out of committee and onto the floor for a vote, but their rules differ on how the petition is accomplished. For example, Wisconsin requires a simple majority, whereas Kansas requires 56 percent approval in order to have a bill proceed to the floor.
Why does this all matter?
The past few weeks in the U.S. House of Representatives have been interesting to say the least. Before the current leadership struggles are decided later this week, it will first have to a vote on reauthorizing the U.S. Export Import Bank as a result of a successful discharge petition. The bank, which has previously been reauthorized with little debate, has been bottled up in the Financial Services Committee since July because of the opposition of the committee’s chairman and sizable number of House Republicans.
Existing rules regarding discharge petitions require that the measure be considered only on the second or fourth Monday of the month. Meaning today, Oct. 26, we will see a vote on the House floor directly as a result of this rare procedural tool.
Many questions will be raised on what will happen in the House for the remainder of the 114th Congress. Will new House leadership implement different rules to allow for the consideration of more legislation, or will discharge petitions become a more commonly used tool to get floor votes? It’s anyone’s guess, but maybe we will know a little more after today’s vote.
Assuming that the legislation passes out of the House, it is off to the Senate, which has been debating rules changes of its own. Could the filibuster as we know it soon be a thing of the past? Stay tuned.
Jake Lestock is a policy associate in NCSL's Washington, D.C. office.