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November 30, 2012

Pelosi Threatens Discharge Petition to Force Tax Bill to House Floor

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Since returning to the control of Republicans, the House has returned to the “Hastert rule,” (named for the former House Speaker, Denny Hastert) where only legislation that has a majority of votes among the majority, rather than a majority of votes overall, will get a vote on the floor. The Senate’s tax bill, which extends the Bush-era tax rates only on the first $250,000 of income, fits into this sweet spot. It probably has enough votes to pass but not enough to capture a majority of Republicans. Therefore, John Boehner rejects bringing it to the floor.

The House rules have a way around this conundrum, and Nancy Pelosi will try to use it. It’s known as the discharge petition. Here’s what she had to say today:

The clock is ticking, the year is ending, it’s really important, with tax legislation, for it to happen now. We’re calling upon the Republican leadership in the House to bring this legislation to the floor next week. We believe that not doing that would be holding middle income tax cuts hostage to tax cuts for the rich. Tax cuts for the rich which do not create jobs, just increase the deficit, heaping mountains of debt onto future generations.

And so, to that end, we are – we will be introducing, if the bill, if there is no announcement of scheduling of the middle income tax cut, which, by the way, has tremendous support in the Republican Caucus – I think we would get a 100 percent vote on it if it came to the floor. If it is not scheduled, then on Tuesday we will be introducing a discharge petition which you know with – if we get 218 signatures, would bring the bill automatically to the floor. That would mean that we need some Republicans who support middle income tax cuts, to sign on with us.

Discharge petitions have worked to force legislation to the House floor in the past. But this is a different, highly partisan era. Republicans operate on the Iron Law of Institutions, where the individual lawmaker’s position within the caucus matters much more than their position as a whole. This makes it extremely difficult to get a Republican to sign onto a discharge petition of the Democrats. There are probably 350 votes in the House for a bill to crack down on currency manipulators, for example, but John Boehner has refused to bring it to the floor. Supporters of the bill went for a discharge petition, and here’s what happened when one Republican signed it:

Despite a full court press from Dems, not a single Republican had signed the petition to bring the bill to the floor. This, even though 99 Republicans voted for this measure last time, some 31 Republican Senators crossed party lines to support the bill in the Senate yesterday, and the bill currently has dozens of Republican co-sponsors in the House [...]

Late yesterday, aides say, Dems thought they had scored a breakthrough: GOP Rep. Harold Rogers had signed the discharge petition. Rogers is no back-bencher — he’s chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee — and Dems thought they’d be able to use his support to lure other GOPers to sign it.

Alas, today Rogers has quietly taken his name off the petition.

What happened? According to a GOP aide, the GOP leadership contacted the Appropriations Committee staff and let them know that Rogers had signed the petition. The leadership noted that it was unusual for committee chairs to affix their names to such petititions, as it could be seen as stepping on the jurisdiction of the committee that has jurisdiction over the issue in question. Rogers then took his name off of it.

I would suspect that on an even more high-profile issue like tax cuts, you would see similar arm-twisting if a Republican dared to sign the discharge petition. There are lame duck members who aren’t coming back to Washington who might give it a try, but not enough to force the bill onto the floor.

So I suspect the Boehner firewall would hold here. It does make Republicans uncomfortable to have to deny the discharge petition, however. Maybe the President could talk about it on his road tour.

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