Just the Facts

Five Facts on the Discharge Petition

By Emma Petasis
May 15, 2018 | Blog

Last week, Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida made an interesting legislative maneuver: He filed a “discharge petition” in the House to go around Speaker Paul Ryan and get a vote on an immigration bill.


The speaker controls the flow of legislation in the House, and Ryan has thus far declined to move a bill that would address the fate of millions of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children (often called “Dreamers”), or other key immigration priorities like border security. But a discharge petition can change that equation. As the only means that rank-and-file lawmakers have to force a bill to the House floor, it may be a tool we see used more often. Here’s what you need to know.


What is a discharge petition?

A discharge petition is designed to allow any member of the House to move legislation out of committee and to the floor, so long as they have the support of a majority of their fellow House members. It is literally a petition. A lawmaker files a discharge petition with the House clerk and his or her fellow lawmakers can sign on.


How does a discharge petition work?

A discharge petition can only apply to a single bill and the legislation must have been referred to a committee for 30 legislative days. If the petition draws support from the majority of the House, the motion to discharge the bill must be voted on in that committee. If it is approved, the bill must receive a vote on the House floor.


What do the numbers look like?

In the 435-member chamber, 218 lawmakers must sign onto a discharge petition to enact it. With the House so divided—and with an election coming in November—that can be a tall order. Yet it can work when an issue draws support from both Democrats and Republicans. For example, Curbelo’s petition is expected to draw support from all 193 Democrats, meaning he needs support from 25 Republicans to get to 218. As of Friday, Curbelo had signatures of 19 Republican House members, according to House records. He will need six more.


Are discharge petitions usually successful?

Fewer than one in 10 efforts is successful. Of the 221 discharge petitions filed between 1967 and 2003, only 22 made it to the House floor, according to the Congressional Research Service. However, discharge petitions can also be used to pressure House leadership into action, even if they do not draw majority support. When a petition starts to draw a large number of signatures, the speaker will often act on the legislation in order to preserve some control over the process.


Have any major bills been moved via discharge petition?

Politicos will remember the McCain-Feingold bill, a campaign finance reform effort championed by Republican Senator John McCain and former Democratic Senator Russell Feingold. After working to pass the bill for the better part of a decade, a discharge petition was used in the House in 2002. The petition drew a majority of signatures, the bill was brought up for a vote and it passed, enacting one of the largest reform efforts since the 1970s.


Why are discharge petitions so rare?

Discharge petitions are generally used in defiance of House leadership. They are used to move legislation when the speaker and his leadership team will not. As such, they represent political risk. The lawmakers using a discharge petition could face political retribution for standing against House leadership.

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