Legislative Process 101—Discharge Petitions

Legislative 101 | May 24, 2017

In the House of Representatives, being the minority party is no picnic. Minority members have very few means to disrupt the plans of the majority. However, for some kinds of legislation, there are opportunities to exercise power, and one of those examples is a discharge petition.

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What’s a Discharge Petition?

After a bill has been introduced and referred to a standing committee for 30 days, a member of the House can file a motion to have the bill discharged, or released, from consideration by the committee. In order to do this, a majority of the House (218 voting members, not delegates) must sign the petition. Once a discharge petition reaches 218 members, after several legislative days, the House considers the motion to discharge the legislation and takes a vote after 20 minutes of debate. If the vote passes (by all those who signed the petition in the first place), then the House will take up the measure.

Isn’t Signing a Discharge Petition Just Like Cosponsoring a Bill?

Similar, but not the same. Adding a name as a cosponsor of a bill signals to the public that a Member of Congress (MoC) would support the bill should it come to the floor. And under normal procedure, the Majority Leader schedules all bills for consideration by the House. However, with a discharge petition, the Majority Leader does not have the discretion of whether to schedule the bill. It comes to the floor once it receives 218 signatures.

But How Often Do Discharge Petitions Come to the Floor?

Not often. The biggest barrier to invoking this procedure is getting the requisite 218 signatures in a highly-majoritarian body. Historically, discharge petitions have passed, but not in recent history.