What You Need to Know About Congress's Discharge Petition

Last Wednesday, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and 16 other moderate Republicans filed a discharge petition to expedite voting on the four Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) proposals. Decisions on DACA have been pending for years; filing a discharge petition has the potential to significantly increase the odds that one of these bills will become law. 

While the discharge petition is a seldom-used tactic in Congress, it remains a powerful one. Here are five facts you need to know about this important tool.

1. What is a discharge petition, and how does it work? A discharge petition allows a majority of the House of Representatives, or 218 elected officials, to force a bill onto the floor, where it will be debated and ultimately voted on. Here’s how it works: If a bill has been introduced and referred to committee for at least 30 days, any House member can file a motion with the Clerk of the House to discharge the bill from committee. If 218 members sign onto the petition, the bill becomes eligible for discharge with a vote (after seven days). After 20 minutes of debate, if the vote passes, the House will take up the measure. As of 1995, the names of all signers on a discharge petition were required to be made public; they had previously been undisclosed.

2. When was the discharge petition idea first introduced? The current version of the discharge petition became a House rule in 1931. However, an earlier version was introduced in 1910 to curb the influence of then-Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon.

3. What are some notable examples of the discharge petition being used in the past, and around what issues? While used rarely, the discharge petition has been used to pass high-profile bills. In 2002, the tactic was used to bypass then-Speaker Dennis Hastert to pass the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as McCain-Feingold), which regulates campaign finance. In 2015, the discharge petition was used to extend the charter of the Export-Import Bank, the official export credit agency of the United States.

4. Why isn’t the discharge petition used more often? More often than not, discharge petitions are not successful. Between 1967 and 2003, only 22 of 221 discharge petitions filed made it onto the floor, according to the Congressional Research Service.

5. What are “Queen of the Hill” rules and how do they relate to a discharge petition? Queen of the Hill” is an obscure and infrequently used process by which multiple amendments are voted on at once, and the amendment with the most votes wins. According to Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, this process is used when there is a “strong difference of opinion” on a bill in the House. The discharge petition filed last week will mandate a “Queen of the Hill” debate on the four pending DACA proposals.

No Labels is an organization of Democrats, Republicans, and independents working to bring American leaders together to solve problems.

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