In 1986, after Peter W. Rodino, the Democratic congressman from New Jersey, who was then the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he wouldn’t consider a gun-rights bill the Senate had passed with a large bipartisan majority, the National Rifle Association decided to go for an end-run around the chamber’s leadership.
After the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform legislation Thursday, supporters of the bill are in a similar situation. Now, some on the left are suggesting that Democrats in the House do what the NRA did then: Gather signatures for what is known as a discharge petition.
The discharge petition allows an absolute majority of the House of Representatives (218 lawmakers) to force a floor vote on a bill, even if the leadership, who usually controls what legislation makes it to the floor, is opposed. The opposition party can, in theory, use the technique to hijack the legislative agenda on an issue that divides the majority.
The NRA’s tactic worked back in the 80s. The bill passed the House 292 to 130, significantly weakening the 1968 Gun Control Act by requiring evidence of “willful” violations in prosecutions of gun dealers, among other provisions.
A discharge petition succeeded again in 2002, forcing a vote in the House on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation. (McCain-Feingold, of course, was partially struck down by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case in 2010.)
But these are the only two examples of successful discharge petitions on major legislation in recent history. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) threatened to bring a discharge petition this winter during the fiscal cliff negotiation, but never made good on the threat.