What is a Discharge Petition?
To Discharge a Bill from a Standing Committee:
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.
To Discharge a Special Rule from the Rules Committee:
Because discharging a bill from a standing committee is a lengthy process and there are multiple ways for the Speaker to intervene, members of the minority party might instead attempt to discharge a Special Rule from the Rules Committee. The process is similar, but with some important differences.
A rule, including a “Special Rule,” is a resolution that governs how a bill is brought to the floor, the terms of debate, if amendments are allowed, and some other procedural guidelines. Basically, whenever the House is going to vote on a major bill, they first must pass a rule that says how they’re going to go about considering the major bill, and then they can vote on the underlying bill. So discharging a Special Rule is the first step, but the ultimate goal is to pass the major bill it is attached to.
Once the special rule has been introduced, it has to sit in the Rules Committee for 7 legislative days. After that point, the discharge petition can be filed and Members of Congress can begin signing their names. Once the petition receives 218 signatures - which can take quite a while, or not happen at all - and passes a second 7 legislative days waiting period, then any member who signed the petition can call the Special Rule to the floor for a vote. The Speaker then has 2 legislative days to schedule the vote. If the House passes the Special Rule, that then automatically brings the underlying bill to the floor for debate and then a vote.
Often, the Special Rule will also make some automatic changes to the underlying bill, which could range from minor updates to a complete substitute of the legislative text. This means when the House passes the Special Rule, the changes to the underlying bill happen simultaneously and the updated bill is what receives a vote.
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 Democrats to try to force a vote on something that all Democrats and just a handful of Republicans wanted to force to the floor. But the only way for this to happen is if there’s enormous pressure on that handful of Republicans to break ranks from their party’s leadership.
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 the minority again, the discharge petition can be effectively used, but only if all members of the Democratic party, and enough Republicans to get to 218, sign on to use this escape hatch protocol to bypass the Speaker and force a vote.