ICYMI: What happened to the discharge petition?

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By Casey Burgat

After two postponements, the House is expected to vote on a ‘compromise’ immigration bill on Wednesday, June 27. Though the bill’s text has not been released and more than a few rank-and-file members are unsure of its status and contents, most expect the bill to provide some funding to President Trump’s desired wall, curtail legal immigration, and provide a path to citizenship for the Dreamers. And no matter what goodies are added in the final hours to secure votes, the compromise bill—which will receive a total of 0 Democratic votes—was certain to fail in the House

It’s important to remember the doomed compromise bill was only offered by leadership after Democrats and some of the most moderate Republicans generated momentum to bypass leadership altogether with their discharge petition. The petition currently sits at 216 public signatures, two shy of the required 218 majority. (Remember the discharge petition is a tool for rank-and-file members to bypass leadership and force floor action on an underlying bill that has been bottled up in committee.)

If we aren’t there yet, here’s where we enter into serious geeky procedural territory, with serious political and policy implications. As House procedure whiz Josh Huder threaded, the discharge petition was effectively killed last week when Speaker Ryan brought the Goodlatte Immigration bill up for a vote. (Shocker: it failed.)

The problem? The ultimate objective of the discharge petition is the Goodlatte bill that was shot down last week. In defeating the object of the discharge petition by Speaker Ryan’s bringing the Goodlatte bill to the floor on his own, the special order for consideration of the Goodlatte bill has been rendered moot since established parliamentary procedure prohibits bringing up a rejected bill. The final nail in the Goodlatte bill coffin was the deafening silence when motion to reconsider was tabled without a single member objecting.

It’s likely that some (many?) moderate Republicans understood the Speaker’s strategy in offering the Goodlatte bill on his own. But others may not have been aware that their negotiating leverage was about to disintegrate.

For these members, and the entire Democratic caucus, the silver lining from the discharge experience is that they forced leadership to the table on an issue their clearly didn’t want to tackle publicly knowing the party divisions. Something happened, or at least the threat of something maybe happening, sometime was there. Which, sadly, is something.

Though this particular discharge threat seems to be nulled, perhaps another can be taken up in its place, on this issue or others where 218 votes may be possible. And maybe next time, in order to maintain their negotiating position, members will understand—and insist—that any horse trading of votes with leaders will not include the ultimate object of any discharge petition special rules.

Casey Burgat is Governance Project fellow with the R Street Institute and member of the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group.