Why The House Can’t Discharge Its Duties

[Edit 10/5/13. Note: When I wrote this, I had not yet read this piece in the Washington Post, which refers to this bill. This doesn’t change the basic math of the post and, indeed, makes its points arguably even more tangible.]

A few people (fewer than I would have expected) have mentioned the possibility of the discharge petition as way to circumvent the House leadership in pursuit of a “clean CR.”  I will briefly describe this procedure and why it wouldn’t work, even procedurally, for the current dilemma.  (For those interested in more details, see my 2007 article “The House Discharge Procedure and Majoritarian Politics,” the ungated version of which is here.)

Essentially every bill considered by the House of Representatives is first considered by one or more standing committees.  While committees are generally thought of as places where bills might be more closely considered and amendments proposed for eventual consideration by the floor, they also represent opportunities for “gatekeeping,” or negative agenda control, insofar as the committee(s) in question can delay or potentially block floor consideration (and, hence, passage) of the bills referred to them. The discharge petition is a tool that allows a majority of the House to remove (“discharge”) the committee from its responsibility for/ownership of a bill.

The basics of a discharge petition are as follows:[1]

  1. A bill is referred to a committee.
  2. The committee does not report the bill to the floor within 30 days.
  3. A member starts a discharge petition to remove the committee from consideration of the bill.
  4. The petition is signed by a majority of the House (218 members).
  5. The petition is called up when it is privileged (2nd and 4th Mondays of the month)
  6. The motion to discharge is approved by majority vote.
  7. The bill is then considered under the standing rules (open rule)
  8. The bill (possibly as amended) must then receive a majority vote to pass.

This is quite a hill to climb, for many reasons.  For the purpose of this post, I simply want to point out that, as far as I can tell, no “clean CR” has been referred to a committee in the House.[2]  Thus, a member would need to introduce such a CR and have it referred to a committee, and then wait 38 days at least (November 11, 2013). That assumes the member can get 218 signatures.[3]

More to the point, even if a clean CR has been sitting in some committee for 30 days or more, the earliest that such a CR could practically be brought up is October 12th 14th (the second Monday of October).  Given that the GOP has shown unity on procedural maneuvers (such as the previous question on a special rule) during this SHUTDOWN SHOWDOWN, I have a hard time imagining that even this would work.  After all, in 1993, the discharge petition was successfully used…to make signatures on discharge petitions public.[4]  Thus, every GOP member who signed it would be “out in the open” for potentially several days or weeks.

So, in a nutshell, the discharge petition is a potential route to circumventing the leadership, but it definitely ain’t an easy one.  But, you know, should we really be surprised?

With that, I leave you with this.


[1] I dispense here with some variations on the route to discharge, including special rules and multiple referrals.  There are some interesting differences for special rules, but discharge of a special rule for consideration of a bill can take no less (and, generally, more) time than a “straight discharge.” The virtue of discharging a special rule is that this route to discharge allows one to discharge a committee and then consider the bill under a “closed rule,” protecting it from amendment.  This is arguably irrelevant in this case, since the Senate has already passed a clean CR, and this would arguably be the object of the discharge.

[2] The closest thing I could find currently in committee in the House is H.J.Res. 62, which is a CR that permanently defunds the Affordable Care Act.  Using this measure to achieve a clean CR would require the use of the special rule route to discharge, mentioned in note [1].  The time problem remains even if this route were used.

[3] …And that the Speaker has not read my article about a subterfuge that would at least theoretically circumvent the whole thing. Really, it’s quite cool.  You know, if you’re into stuff like that. It also can probably be pulled at most one time, after which the rules would be changed.

[4] To see the four currently pending discharge petitions, click here and scroll to the bottom.