In Clifford Berryman’s classic cartoon of the 1908 House of Representatives, Speaker Joseph Cannon (R-Illinois) looks out across the chamber and only sees more Joe Cannons. Democrats had no means of challenging the Speaker’s control of the floor. Two years later, in the aftermath of an historic challenge to the Speaker, moderate Republicans and nearly every Democrat joined forces to create the House discharge rule — a tool described by the Democratic leader as “a wedge with which to weaken and finally split the Republican party wide open.” On a few occasions over the next century, the discharge rule provoked majority leaders to reluctantly bring targeted bills to the floor.
When I wrote about the discharge rule earlier this week, I concluded that technical and political barriers rendered the discharge rule an unlikely tool for securing a House vote on a continuing resolution (CR) to temporarily fund the government. Many readers suggested that I prematurely dismissed the potential of the discharge rule. So back in the procedural weeds we go.
First, have I underestimated the technical feasibility of using a discharge petition to dislodge a spending bill? Possibly. Several readers suggested that a discharge petition could be targeted to bills introduced earlier this spring, thus meeting the rule’s requirement that a discharge target be lingering in committee for longer than 30 days. One relevant bill (introduced by a team of GOP conservatives this past March) would create an automatic four-month CR whenever Congress fails to enact its spending bills by Oct. 1. That would be a natural target of a discharge rule, as would a special rule written and referred to the Rules Committee to bring the bill to the House floor. The special rule might also provide for additional calls of the discharge calendar, speeding up the discharge drive. So yes, there are potentially ripe measures that might be targeted to re-open the government in a more timely manner than I suggested. That said, the automatic CR bill that’s in committee differs significantly from the clean “CR” in dispute, raising the challenge of securing 60 Senate votes. As Gary Cox argues, automatic CRs affect everyone’s bargaining leverage, making them potentially controversial.
Second, have I overestimated the political barriers to its success? I’m not so sure. The political challenge strikes me as pretty steep: Majority party lawmakers are typically loath to sign discharge petitions that undercut the power of party and committee leaders. We see this more generally in lawmakers’ votes on procedural matters, which exhibit much higher levels of partisanship than votes on substance in both the House and Senate. Witness how few Republican members have broken ranks with the leadership on any of the procedural votes over the past week; these moderates also fill the ranks of the members most loyal to Speaker Boehner on contested pivotal votes this year.
Granted, the number of GOP who have called for a clean CR now surpasses the House GOP’s margin over the Democrats. Are those members also willing to cross the aisle and party leaders to sign a discharge petition? Perhaps, if House GOP moderates feel that they can’t escape blame for the shutdown back home. But historical patterns suggest such crossover behavior is rare.
Speaker Cannon’s opponents created the discharge rule more than a century ago to undermine a recalcitrant Speaker’s grip on the House. Subsequent minority parties have faced a hard time making it work.