Why the discharge rule won’t help Democrats on the CR

October 2, 2013

Congress’s spending impasse shuts down the national parks. (Someone tell Smokey Bear.) Steve Helber/Associated Press

Each day lawmakers continue to battle over a Continuing Resolution (CR) to temporarily fund the government, another congressional rule makes its debut into news coverage of the spending impasse.   Amendments in disagreement between the House, tabling motions in the Senate, suspension of the rules in the House– will it never end?  Today, Jon Bernstein asks me to explain why the House “discharge rule” can’t save the day for the Democrats.  As Jon suggests, the discharge rule is an unwieldy option for Democrats trying to put a clean CR on the House floor for a vote.   Contrary to claims that the discharge rule will “end this nonsense,” more likely it’s a procedural dead end for the CR.

Why is the discharge rule so lame? As always, procedural mechanics and political context shape the effectiveness of congressional rules.  The cumbersome nature of the rule — coupled with GOP unwillingness to join forces with the Democrats — consigns the discharge rule to the dustbins of congressional procedural history.  (Not a bad place, if you’re into that sort of stuff.)

First, the mechanics.  Under the House discharge rule, a majority of the membership (218 lawmakers, even if some seats are vacant) can sign a petition to dislodge a bill or resolution from a House committee.  With the requisite number of signatures (made public here), a majority can extract any bill that has been stuck in a committee for more than 30 legislative days.  Members can also target special rules that are stuck in the Rules Committee, so long as the rule has been before House Rules for more than seven legislative days and so long as the rule targets a bill stuck at least 30 days in committee. Once 218 members sign on, motions to discharge land on the House discharge calendar.  If you are a bill in a hurry for a vote, don’t tread there.   The House considers motions from the discharge calendar on only the second and fourth Mondays of the month.

Time lags built into the discharge rule are bound to frustrate lawmakers if they seek to open a shuttered government.   Even if an aspiring lawmaker bones up on the House rule book and today introduces a CR and a discharge motion to dislodge it, the earliest the motion to discharge would make its way onto the discharge calendar after securing 218 signatures would be November.  (I am assuming that the House’s calendar and legislative days run roughly in tandem this month).  If the motion doesn’t make it onto the calendar until after the second Monday of the month, the bill would be discharged at the earliest in late November.  Procedural details make the discharge rule ill-suited for swift enactment of a clean CR.

Second, political challenges compound procedural barriers to using the rule. As Brookings’ Molly Jackman nicely argues, if a minority party Democrat starts a discharge petition, securing the cooperation of GOP moderates (whose public signatures would be necessary to reach 218) would be a high hurdle; they are unlikely to cross party lines to undermine Speaker Boehner’s influence over the floor agenda.  Even so, as Jackman notes, discharge petitions by the majority party would have greater prospects of securing leaders’ cooperation.  But again, the chances of a Charlie Dent (R-PA) or a Peter King (R-NY) initiating a procedural challenge to Boehner seems unlikely from today’s vantage point.

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Henry Farrell | October 1, 2013