by Countable | 5.17.17
House Democrats will use an obscure legislative procedure known as a discharge petition on Wednesday to try to force a vote on a bill that would create an independent commission to investigate Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. Unless more Republicans are persuaded to join calls for an independent commission, the longshot tactic is the best chance Democrats have to bring such a bill up for a vote in Congress.
Discharge petitions are the legislative equivalent of the "Advance to GO, Collect $200" Monopoly card — they allow a bill to skip past hearings, committee votes, Ventnor Avenue, and all the rest on the way to a final vote on passage. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have discharge petitions at their disposal, though the process works a little differently in each chamber of Congress.
In the House, a discharge petition can only be filed if the bill it pertains to has been idle for 30 legislative days, at which point supporters must gather the signatures of a majority of House members (218 normally but 216 now due to vacancies) in order to force the committee to release the bill. If supporters have met that signature threshold, and the committee doesn’t act within seven days, then the bill can be brought to the House floor for a vote.
Things get a little more complex in the Senate, where discharge petitions can be used for normal bills in addition to executive branch and judicial nominations (like for a Supreme Court vacancy). Legislation that’s the focus of a discharge petition can still be blocked by the filibuster, so supporters must have the backing of at least 60 Senators in the process to prevent it from being stopped.
Rep. Eric Swalwell’s (D-CA) Protecting Our Democracy Act, the bill that would be brought up for consideration if the discharge petition is successful, is pretty straightforward.
It would create an independent, 12-member commission similar to the one created after the 9/11 attacks that’d have the ability to interview witnesses, get documents, issue subpoenas, and hear public testimony. Once its investigation is complete, the commission would provide Congress and the president with a final report offering recommendations within 18 months of the bill’s enactment.
The commission would be made up of prominent U.S. citizens who’ve worked with distinction in government, law enforcement, the military, law, intelligence, elections, foreign affairs, and cybersecurity. No federal officials or employees would be eligible to participate, and members would be chosen by congressional leadership from both parties.
It’s pretty unlikely, as it needs 216 supporters to get a majority in the House and only 200 lawmakers have announced their support for it. That being said, if more Republicans join their two colleagues who’ve cosponsored the Protecting Our Democracy Act it just might have a chance to reach the floor.
If it works, it'd be only the fourth time in the modern era that a discharge petition has been successfully used. Discharge petitions were used to approve a gun-rights bill backed by the NRA in 1986, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill in 2002, and by the House in 2015 in an early attempt to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank.
Tell your reps whether they should support the discharge petition and the Protecting Our Democracy Act using the "Take Action" button.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: DOD Photo by USAF Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos / Public Domain)
Written by Countable