Democrats can use this one weird trick to end the government shutdown

October 2, 2013

Okay, so nobody thought it worthwhile last weekend to take up my idea for avoiding a government shutdown by offering John Boehner the chance to escape the grip of the Tea Party and transform himself from Speaker of the Republican Caucus to the Speaker of the Whole House of Representatives.

Mr. Boehner, discharge this petition! (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Mr. Boehner, discharge this petition! (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

So here’s Plan B, which would temporarily solve both the funding and the looming debt ceiling crises without requiring Boehner or the Republican caucus to do anything other than abide by the rules of the House:

House Democratic leaders should immediately file a bill with two simple provisions:  one, providing for short-term funding for the government until Jan. 1, 2015, and a second lifting the debt sufficient to comfortably get the government past New Year’s (with the shutdown, the two issues are now effectively joined at the hip). The deadline should provide for plenty of time to negotiate a grand bargain while keeping pressure on everyone to negotiate.

Then the Democrats should circulate what is called a discharge petition for a special rule to bring it to the floor for an immediate vote.  All it would take is about 20 responsible Republicans to sign the discharge petition, along with nearly the entire Democratic caucus, to create a majority that could force the vote and pass the bill. There are said to be at least that many Republicans willing to support such a bill, and as the shutdown proceeds there will likely be more.

Under House rules, once the discharge petition, with the requisite 218 signatures, is filed with the clerk, it immediately goes on what’s called the “Discharge Calendar.” And once the newly filed “clean” funding-cum-debt ceiling bill has sat in committee for thirty days, petition discharging the committee from further consideration can be called up by any member of the House on the second and fourth Monday of any month. As a “privileged motion,” it would interrupt almost all other business pending before the House.

This is a well-established way for a majority House members to get around a recalcitrant speaker or majority caucus — it’s been used successfully dozens of times in the modern era, including the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.  The question isn’t whether it would work.  The real question is why House Democrats didn’t think to set the process in motion last week, when the shutdown was already a real possibility.

Due to the calendar, a discharge petition, at this point, won't avoid a shutdown, or even a problem with the debt ceiling, but it will provide a backstop and possibly put the pressure on the Republican leadership to allow an up-or-down vote by the entire House.

Correction: This post originally stated that a bill needs to sit in committee for seven days before a discharge petition can be used. It's actually 30 days. We regret the error. 

For more discharge wonkery: The Monkey Cage's Sarah Binder has a deep dive on the technical aspects of using a discharge petition.

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Brad Plumer · October 2, 2013