According to reporting by the Associated Press, there have been only two successful efforts in history to use a discharge petition to force legislation onto the floor of the House of Representatives: “The discharge petition worked in 1986, forcing a vote on a gun rights bill, and in 2002, ensuring a vote on campaign finance legislation.” The latter case involved the House’s version of the McCain-Feingold bill, which was colloquially known as the Shays-Meehan bill.
Momentum had built for some kind of campaign finance reform in no small part because of the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Bill Bradley, which had both made reform a central plank of their efforts. As Marc Ambinder and Matthew Silverstein reported for ABC News at the time, the collapse of Enron added extra impetus to the effort. Speaker Hastert resisted reform, but a substantial number of Republicans felt that something needed to be done. The Bush White House refused to issue a veto threat, indicating that they were open to change or, at least, that they wanted to distance themselves from the Enron scandal.
In that particular environment, there were enough House Republicans willing to buck Speaker Hastert to make the discharge petition successful. It is unclear whether or not the Democrats can create a similar environment in which either a raise in the minimum wage or a vote on comprehensive immigration reform can be achieved through the successful completion of a discharge petition. Helpfully, the AP explains the process:
Q: What does a discharge petition do?
A: It allows the minority or opposition party to bypass the House speaker and get a vote.
First, 217 members — one more than half the House’s current membership of 432 — have to sign a petition. A motion to consider the wage issue would then be placed on the legislative calendar, but it can’t be acted on for at least seven days. Any lawmaker can then call it up but only on the second or fourth Monday of the month. The motion is debated and if the House passes it, then lawmakers would consider and vote on the bill.
Currently there are 232 Republicans, 200 Democrats and three vacancies in the House. All 200 Democrats would have to sign the petition, but Democrats would have a tough time getting 17 Republicans to join them.
Signing a discharge petition would be a breach of loyalty for Republicans, certain to draw the wrath of the caucus, and a rebuke of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Back in 2002, it was probably decisive that the White House was in the hands of Republicans and that the White House was not opposed to the discharge petition. That, along with the passage of the McCain-Feingold bill in the Senate, gave House Republicans more freedom to act than they will feel this year.
There’s also an ironic twist to this, in that the members most likely to support raising the minimum wage or reforming our immigration policies are also the members most loyal to Speaker Boehner and least likely to embarrass him by signing a discharge petition. For example, among the 27 Republicans who voted with Boehner to raise the debt ceiling, most of them represent either California or one of the Mid-Atlantic states. The rest are part of the leadership team.
Of course, Speaker Boehner’s role here is somewhat opaque. It seems clear that Boehner would prefer to pass immigration reform but can’t get his own caucus to go along with it. He might secretly want to take the minimum wage debate off the table, too. Would he actually he happy if discharge petitions were successful? Could he find a way to let his allies know that his feelings would not be hurt if it happened?
One thing we know is that Boehner isn’t very good at his job. So, I wouldn’t bet too much money on him being clever enough to pull something like that off.
Still, the Democrats are going to push the issue and create pressure for vulnerable Republicans to either sign the petitions or face withering criticism during the upcoming midterms.