The discharge petition’s role in the immigration reform debate, explained

In 1986, after Peter W. Rodino, the Democratic congressman from New Jersey, who was then the chairman  of the House Judiciary Committee, said he wouldn't consider a gun-rights bill the Senate had passed with a large bipartisan majority, the National Rifle Association decided to go for an end-run around the chamber's leadership.

After the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform legislation Thursday, supporters of the bill are in a similar situation. Now, some on the left are suggesting that Democrats in the House do what the NRA did then: Gather signatures for what is known as a discharge petition.

The discharge petition allows an absolute majority of the House of Representatives (218 lawmakers) to force a floor vote on a bill, even if the leadership, who usually controls what legislation makes it to the floor, is opposed. The opposition party can, in theory, use the technique to hijack the legislative agenda on an issue that divides the majority.


The NRA's tactic worked back in the 80s. The bill passed the House 292 to 130, significantly weakening the 1968 Gun Control Act by requiring evidence of "willful" violations in prosecutions of gun dealers, among other provisions.

A discharge petition succeeded again in 2002, forcing a vote in the House on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation. (McCain-Feingold, of course, was partially struck down by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case in 2010.)

But these are the only two examples of successful discharge petitions on major legislation in recent history. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) threatened to bring a discharge petition this winter during the fiscal cliff negotiation, but never made good on the threat.

The problem with the discharge petition is that it requires an issue to be so important to members that they are willing to disobey their party's leadership. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said very clearly that he will not bring the Senate's immigration bill to a vote unless a majority of his caucus supports it. Boehner has struggled with party discipline recently, with the unexpected failure of the farm bill last week, but the agitators are to his ideological right. It's difficult to imagine a significant group of centrist Republicans alienating their most powerful ally by signing a discharge petition.

Another way a discharge petition could succeed would be with the G.O.P. leadership's tacit consent, as Kevin Drum has argued:

If Republicans really do want to pass immigration reform just to get it over and done with, but they want to do it without getting their fingerprints all over it, the discharge petition is easily their best bet. As Steve says, all it requires is 20 or 30 Republicans in safe seats to vote for it, while the entire rest of the caucus gets to continue railing against it while secretly breathing a sigh of relief. That's totally logical.

Yet as Drum points out, this "House-of-Cards" strategy makes more sense in theory than it would in practice. First, Boehner would have to keep the entire scheme secret from the more conservative members of his party. Second, there's no reason to assume that Boehner agrees with the donors in the Republican establishment who think that the party needs to find a way to appeal to Hispanic voters and move beyond the fight over immigration reform.

Even if Boehner does agree with the sentiment that the party needs to alter its position on immigration, the spectacle of most of the GOP conference voting against the bill while the leadership remained silent would not be the sort of thing that rehabilitates the the party -- or is even a first step in that process -- with Hispanic voters.

Of course, no one expected the NRA to succeed in 1986, when the Democratic leadership was taken by surprise. But for now, a discharge petition on immigration reform appears very unlikely.

Max Ehrenfreund is a staff writer for the Washington Post.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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