Five Facts on Discharge Petitions
As President Biden cuts his Asia-Pacific trip short to return to Washington for face-to-face negotiations to lift the debt ceiling, Democratic members of the House of Representatives continue to call for using a “discharge petition” as a backup plan to raise if negotiations fail.
This little-known and rarely used legislative maneuver could bring a debt ceiling bill to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote without the approval of congressional leadership, but what happens next remains to be seen. Here are Five Facts about the discharge petition and how it may be used to end the debt ceiling crisis and avoid default.
1. A discharge petition is a way to bring a bill to the floor for consideration without a report from a committee.
Under normal rules in the House of Representatives, any bill a member introduces is assigned to a committee for markup and review before it’s allowed to come to the floor for a final vote. But for legislation that’s been sitting in committee for at least 30 days that the House is in session, a discharge petition can be used to force the bill to the floor. The petition “discharges” the committee from further consideration of the bill, giving more power to individual members of the House and taking power away from the leadership (the Speaker of the House) that typically assigns bills to committees and controls the legislative schedule.
2. A majority of the House must support a discharge petition for it to be successful.
At least 218 members of the House must support a discharge petition for it to come to the floor. This makes a discharge petition a difficult maneuver. Members of the minority party who want to bring forth a discharge petition must convince a certain number of majority party members to support the legislation, which is difficult because majority members are often reluctant to buck their own party leadership. Most discharge petitions, therefore, fall short of 218 votes.
3. Discharge petition rules were changed in 1993 so that members could no longer support petitions in secret.
Prior to the 103rd Congress, members could back a discharge petition anonymously – their identities would only be revealed if the measure were successful. Since 1993, however, the identities of all signatories to a discharge petition are disclosed as soon as they sign on. One effect of this is that congressional leaders can identify potential discharge petition signers and put direct pressure on them to oppose the measure, which often leads to discharge petitions falling just short of the majority required to pass.
4. The last successful discharge petition was filed in 2015.
While numerous discharge petitions are filed each Congress, successful ones have become exceptionally rare, with only two eventually becoming law since 1993. The last was in 2015, when the U.S. Export Import Bank’s authorization was due to run out. That year, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee refused to hold a hearing or move reauthorization legislation. So, the bipartisan duo of U.S. Reps. Dave Reichert (R-WA) and Denny Heck (D-WA) resorted to a discharge petition, signed by a majority of House members, to force the legislation to the floor. More than 40 Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the measure.
5. Democrats will need five Republicans to support their discharge petition to raise the debt ceiling.
With all 213 Democratic members in the House expected to back the discharge petition, Democrats will need at least five Republicans to join their ranks to force their debt ceiling bill to the floor. Some have pointed to Republicans representing districts won by President Biden in 2020 as potential targets to support (despite Democratic organizations targeting those same members in next year’s elections). But most reports suggest that Republicans are unlikely to effectively cede control of the debt ceiling vote to Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) unless the debt ceiling situation becomes unbearably dire.