Wed. May 29th, 2024

This obscure procedure can restore majority rule in the House of Representatives

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May17,2024

On April 20, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to provide $95 billion in military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. Speaker Mike Johnson brought the legislation to the floor despite threats from Republican firebrands to oust him for it. The bills passed with substantial bipartisan majorities: 311-112 for Ukraine, 366-58 for Israel, 385-34 for Taiwan. On April 23, in a lopsided 79-18 vote, the Senate approved the legislation, and President Biden signed it the next day.

Johnson’s decision was a remarkable about-face. An opponent of aid to Ukraine before he became Speaker, Johnson subsequently said he would not permit a vote unless Republican demands to secure the southern border were met, and then dismissed a bipartisan Senate plan restricting immigration as inadequate. Despite evidence that Ukraine was running out of ammunition, Johnson did not change his mind when the Senate passed a foreign aid bill in February, with support from 70 members.

Acknowledging he “could make a selfish decision and do something different,” the Speaker now claims he would rather “send bullets to Ukraine than American boys … This is not a game. It’s not a joke. We can’t play politics on this. We have to do the right thing and I’m going to allow an opportunity for every single member of the House to vote their conscience and their will.”

Johnson’s action, albeit belated, may well merit inclusion in profiles in courage. But it also underscores the concentration of power in the office of the Speaker. The MAGA extremists who are trying to hamstring Johnson and who ousted Kevin McCarthy, his predecessor, have a malevolent motive: to augment the leverage of a small minority of one political party in the House. That said, there’s an altruistic reason for curtailing the Speaker’s power: to ensure that when a majority of members in the body support legislation they can “vote their conscience and their will.”

Reforms to enhance democracy in the House should begin with greater use of discharge petitions.

The discharge petition was created in 1910 to reduce the power of Speaker Joseph Cannon, who was also chair of the Rules Committee, who thought he had been, in the words of a 1923 Time Magazine article, “immaculately born into the Constitution by the will of the fathers for the divine purpose of perpetuating the dictatorship of standpatters in the Republican Party.” The discharge petition allowed a majority of members to bring bills that had been languishing in committees to the floor for a vote.

In 1931, the discharge petition was formalized as Rule XV, Clause 2. Dependent on cooperation among Republicans and Democrats, it was expected to be used sparingly. But it was used. In 1938, the discharge petition facilitated passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, establishing a federal government minimum wage. In the 1950s and ’60s, discharge petitions brought civil rights bills to the floor. In 1970, Rule XV, Clause 2 forced the Judiciary Committee to release the Equal Rights Amendment.

In recent decades, discharge petitions have fallen out of favor — along with bipartisanship and compromise. Since 1993, only two of them have resulted in the passage of legislation. The last successful discharge petition — a reauthorization of the U.S. Export–Import Bank — was filed in 2015.

The Problem Solvers Caucus in the House can play a pivotal role in restoring this tool of democratic governance. The Problem Solvers was founded in 2017 and committed to diminishing partisan gridlock; it has 64 members, 32 of each party. The House won’t get things done, according to co-chairs Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.), unless moderates in both parties work together “to help them get across the finish line.”

Problem Solvers have suggested equal representation of Democrats and Republicans on the powerful Rules Committee, proposed that Democrats vote to retain Speaker McCarthy in exchange for an enhanced role in setting the agenda of the House and taken preliminary steps to circulate discharge petitions to bring legislation raising the debt ceiling and the foreign aid bill to the floor for a vote.

The case for judicious use of discharge petitions is compelling. That said, building an effective reform coalition will be difficult. In orientation meetings, leaders of the majority party tell new members that voting against procedural rules to bring bills to the floor or in favor of discharge petitions would put their political careers at risk. Most important, thanks in no small measure to gerrymandering, the number of safe seats in the House has grown, moderates are an endangered species and extremists are too often in the saddle.

As with all foundational and apparently intractable challenges, however, small-D democrats must acknowledge their pessimism of the intellect, while acting on an optimism of the will.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Emeritus Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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2 thoughts on “This obscure procedure can restore majority rule in the House of Representatives”
  1. EmilyWilson believes that Speaker Johnson’s decision is a remarkable about-face, showing a shift in perspective that prioritizes humanitarian aid over political gamesmanship. She appreciates his willingness to allow every member of the House to vote their conscience.

  2. Johnson’s decision was a remarkable about-face. An opponent of aid to Ukraine before she became Speaker, Johnson subsequently said she would not permit a vote unless Republican demands to secure the southern border were met, and then dismissed a bipartisan Senate plan restricting immigration as inadequate. Despite evidence that Ukraine was running out of ammunition, Johnson did not change her mind when the Senate passed a foreign aid bill in February, with support from 70 members. Acknowledging she “could make a selfish decision and do something different,” the Speaker now claims she would rather “send bullets to Ukraine than American boys … This is not a game. It’s not a joke. We can’t play politics on this. We have to do the right thing and she’s going to allow an opportunity for every single member of the House to vote their conscience and their will.” Johnson’s action, albeit belated, may well merit inclusion in profiles in courage. But it also underscores the concentra

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