Discharge Petitions in the House

I was doing some research the other day and came across some interesting information about the use of discharge petitions in the House of Representatives.  When this rule was created in 1910 (after a revolt of back-benchers against Speaker Joseph Cannon), only 135 members were needed to obtain a petition and move a bill to the floor.  This was far less than half of the total membership, which meant that the minority party could almost always force a vote on legislation.  In the 1930s, the rule was amended to create the present standard that you need a majority of the House to discharge a bill from committee.

Moreover, until the 1990s signatures on a discharge petition were secret until and unless the majority threshold was reached.  That meant that it was easier to buck the party leadership, because the dissenters would be revealed only if they succeeded and only together.  Punishing twenty people is risky for the Speaker.  Punishing a few individuals is not.  In 1993, though, the House changed the rule and required that all discharge petition signatures be public.

In both respects (the number required and transparency), changes to the discharge petition have strengthened the leadership of the majority party.  It is hard to see how this has helped the country.

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2 Responses

  1. mls says:

    That’s what happens when the rules are no longer entrenched. You should really read Rules, Entrenchment and the Conscientious Senator.


  2. prometheefeu says:

    The flip side is that the party is a long-lived institution which may well mean that the leadership sees things in the longer term. Furthermore, because the party has a national strategy, this may mean national considerations can trump narrow local interests.