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Legislative Process 101—Discharge Petitions

What’s a Discharge Petition?

After a bill has been introduced and referred to a standing committee for 30 days, a member of the House can file a motion to have the bill discharged, or released, from consideration by the committee. In order to do this, a majority of the House (218 voting members, not delegates) must sign the petition. Once a discharge petition reaches 218 members, after several legislative days, the House considers the motion to discharge the legislation and takes a vote after 20 minutes of debate. If the vote passes (by all those who signed the petition in the first place), then the House will take up the measure.

Isn’t Signing a Discharge Petition Just Like Cosponsoring a Bill?

Similar, but not the same. Adding a name as a cosponsor of a bill signals to the public that a Member of Congress (MoC) would support the bill should it come to the floor. And under normal procedure, the Majority Leader schedules all bills for consideration by the House. However, with a discharge petition, the Majority Leader does not have the discretion of whether to schedule the bill. It comes to the floor once it receives 218 signatures. Signing a discharge petition signals urgency in addition to support. 

Doesn’t Filing a Discharge Petition Force a Vote on a Bill?

Not always. In fact, rarely are discharge petitions successfully used to force a vote on a contentious bill. This is due to the fact that discharge petitions are typically used by the minority party on issues that can garner bipartisan support. The most likely way for a discharge petition to be used in this Congress is for Republicans to try to force a vote on something that basically all Republicans and some moderate Democrats wanted to force to the floor. But in the last four years, Republican’s have clearly demonstrated that they have no interest in supporting popular legislation that would be likely to earn this level of support.

But How Often Do Discharge Petitions Come to the Floor?

Not often. The biggest barrier to invoking this procedure is getting the requisite 218 signatures in a highly-majoritarian body. Historically, discharge petitions have passed, but not in recent history. Generally a bill that could garner 218 votes could get to the floor through another mechanism first. 

An example of a failed attempt to vote a bill out of committee and onto the House floor, was in 2014 when Democrats (the minority at the time) filed a petition to discharge a bill to increase the minimum wage. Now that Democrats are in the majority, we must push all members of the Democratic party—especially those in leadership and committees of jurisdiction—to support bold, progressive legislation.