A discharge petition is an often threatened, but rarely successful, means of forcing legislation to the floor of the House of Representatives without going through a committee. Most frequently, it is a legislative tool used by the minority with a handful of representatives from the majority party.
A successful discharge petition is an embarrassment to the majority leadership as it circumvents the committee process that they control. As a result, it usually takes some political backbone for a Member of the majority party to sign one.
Any Member may file a discharge petition with the Clerk of the House if a committee has failed to act on a bill after 30 days. To be successful, a majority of the House – 218 Members – must sign the petition. Once that is accomplished, there are two days during a month when the petition can be voted on. If the same Members who signed the petition vote for it, the House must move immediately to consideration of the bill. (See Chapter 16 of the Floor Procedures Manual).
The petition itself is a piece of paper kept at the desk in front of the Speaker’s podium. A Member must go to the desk and ask the clerk for the petition in order to sign it. At the end of each day, the names of that day’s signers are published in the Congressional Record. This was not always so – prior to a rules change passed in 1993, these signatures on a discharge petition were kept secret until it reached 218 signatures. Ironically, it took a successful discharge petition sponsored by then-Representative James Inhofe (R-OK) to force the rules change ending the secrecy.
The last successful discharge petition was the Shays-Meehan/McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act in 2002 while Dennis Hastert was the Speaker. It was the only successful discharge petition during the Republican majority from 1995-2007.
In practice, a successful discharge petition is a rare occurrence. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the 221 petitions in recent history only 22 have resulted in floor consideration of the measure. But this can be misleading. As the number of signatures approach 218, pressure mounts on the leadership to bring the bill to the floor on their own terms, thus maintaining some control over the outcome.
Democrat Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina introduced the border security measure that is the object of a current discharge petition. As of this writing, he had not yet signed the petition on his own bill. Republicans are using this petition as political leverage on the Democratic majority in the House to consider legislation to toughen border security. If they create public demand for the petition and place pressure on electorally vulnerable Democratic Members, their hope is that the Speaker will relent and encourage the committee to bring some kind of border security legislation to the floor that they will try to amend to their satisfaction. If not, then presumably, failure to sign the discharge petition will be a campaign issue in the districts of those vulnerable Members, which might result in the election of representatives that they believe would be more supportive of tougher border security measures.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.