Political Science 411
29 November 2011
The Circumvention of Committee Consideration of Major Legislation Pursuant to Rule XV in the House of Representatives
In the modern House of Representatives, the majority leadership and members of the Rules Committee retain significant ability to dictate the flow of major legislation to the floor of the House for debate and consideration. The extent to which these parties exert such influence centers largely on partisan concerns, namely the advancement of legislation conducive to the realization of the goals and objectives of the majority party. Upon the referral of controversial, salient legislation to the appropriate committee, majority leadership frequently pressures members of such committee to consider party goals when deciding the fate of the bill. As this promoted action typically reflects the positions of the majority of House members, the ultimate fate of the legislation usually stimulates little significant opposition. However, occasionally committees will choose not to report major bills or legislation supported by a significant number of members. Although legislators will typically respect committee decisions, Rule XV of the Rules of the House of Representatives provides dissenting members with recourse to discharge blocked legislation from committee consideration and introduce such measures directly to the House floor. While the successful implementation of these procedures often proves to be a complicated, tiresome process, they function as reasonably effective means of pressuring obstinate committees and advancing personal and party interests.
The most common means of circumventing committee consideration of legislation is to move for a suspension of the rules of the House of Representatives. On any Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday during the legislative session, any member may, upon obtaining recognition from the Speaker, introduce a motion to suspend the rules in order to bring legislation to the floor for immediate consideration. If the motion prevails, the specified measure may be debated for forty minutes, divided equitably between supporters and opponents, during which members are prohibited from introducing amendments. A vote is held upon the conclusion of the debate, and the measure must receive assenting votes from two-thirds of present members in order to prevail.
On its face, obtaining a suspension of the rules of the House would seem to provide members with a feasible method of bypassing committee consideration of important legislation. In practice, however, this strategy is typically feasible only for those seeking to introduce minor, noncontroversial legislation. Given the close working relationship between the Speaker and committee leadership, efforts to employ the suspension procedure to circumvent committee consideration of major legislation often prove unsuccessful, as the Speaker will not recognize members attempting to move for a suspension. The suspension procedure is thus employed primarily by members seeking to secure the expeditious passage of noncontroversial legislation for symbolic or personal purposes.
As evidenced by the motion to suspend introduced by Representative Waters, the suspension procedure is frequently used to compel floor consideration of minor legislation unlikely to provoke significant resistance. Members may seek to obtain rapid passage of such symbolic measures to appease constituents or advance their own personal legislative goals or interests.
Although the majority of legislation brought to the floor for consideration under suspended rules is relatively uncontroversial, majority leadership may, for strategic purposes, choose to employ the suspension procedure to bring salient bills to the floor. While such measures are unlikely to pass by the necessary two-thirds majority, party leaders often seek to utilize the subsequent votes to demonstrate their willingness to consider legislation on pertinent subjects. Conversely, they may emphasize the inevitable opposition their efforts stir as evidence of the stubbornness and obstinacy of their partisan counterparts. In a recent debate on a proposed constitutional amendment mandating a balanced federal budget, Representative Richard Nugent moved for consideration of a rule under which the House would debate the amendment under suspended rules.
3. Sinclair, Unorthodox Lawmaking, 27; Representative Maxine Waters, Speech before the House of Representatives, 111th United States Congress (June 30, 2010), http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/HouseSession3925&start=35322.
As Representative Nugent notes, numerous members would doubtlessly be taken aback by his attempt to bring such politically salient, indeed “the single most significant piece of legislation” of the junior congressmen’s short career to the floor under suspended rules. Nugent and Republican leadership likely understood that Democratic opposition would ensure the eventual defeat of the proposed rule. Regardless, both Representative Nugent and his Republican colleagues can accentuate his efforts, however fruitless, to demonstrate his commitment to the effectuation of a balanced budget amendment, a key conservative political objective. The suspension procedure thus retains symbolic utility during consideration of major legislation, as it may be employed by members to evince party loyalty and respond to pressure from constituents and lobbyists.
While obtaining a suspension of the House rules serves as an effective means of circumventing committee consideration of minor bills, achieving the direct introduction of major legislation to the House floor often necessitates the employment of a comparatively uncommon procedure. Introduced in 1910, the discharge procedure permits a majority coalition of members to dispense a standing committee and compel immediate floor consideration of “public bill[s] or public resolution[s].” Members may implement this process under limited circumstances explicitly delineated in the Rules of the House of Representatives. Pursuant to House Rule XV, members may only discharge standing committees, and may only extract legislation that has been before the committee for thirty legislative days.
The discharge process commences when a member of Congress files a motion to remove an eligible piece of legislation from the committee to which it was referred with the office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives. Upon the receipt of such a motion, the office of the Clerk prepares a formal discharge petition, which is made available to all members to examine and sign. Pursuant a revision to House rules in 1993, the identities of all signatory members are made available for public viewing. Discharge petitions must obtain the signatures of at least 218 members, whereupon the motion is placed on the Discharge Calendar. Motions that have remained on the calendar for seven legislative days assume the status of “privileged business” on the House floor during the second and fourth Mondays of the month, and may thus be introduced by any signatory member for immediate consideration.
Motions to discharge may be debated for twenty minutes, with time being divided equitably between supporters and opponents of the motion, followed by a vote. Unlike motions to suspend, where the Speaker controls floor debate, supporters of the discharge assume control of the floor during its consideration. If the motion is rejected by a majority vote, the legislation specified therein is ineligible for discharge for the remainder of the legislative session. Conversely, should a motion to discharge a standing committee of an eligible piece of legislation prevail by a majority vote, any member who signed such motion may move to bring the corresponding legislation to the floor for prompt consideration. Thus, although demanding and complex, the discharge procedure, if implemented successfully, enables members to bring salient legislation to the House floor in spite of committee or leadership opposition.
Although effective use of the discharge procedure enables a determined legislative coalition to circumvent committee consideration and bring measures directly to the floor, further action must be taken to ensure that the subsequent debate on such legislation proceeds in a coherent and expedient manner. As legislation brought to the floor solely through the discharge procedure is not subject to any special rules issued by the Committee on Rules, debate on these measures is not constrained by any restrictions on time, points of order, or the type and number of amendments which may be proposed. Indeed, if a coalition of members is seeking to discharge an item of legislation from an inert committee, the Rules Committee likely declined to issue a special rule rendering the targeted legislation “privileged business” for immediate floor consideration, thereby compelling the coalition to utilize the discharge procedure to bypass committee consideration. Rather than endure lengthy, disorganized debate marred by dilatory legislative tactics, however, members may employ a similar discharge procedure to obtain time and amendment restrictions without the support of the Rules Committee.
Under the rules of the House, members may propose a special rule containing provisions aimed at regulating debate on legislation that is eligible or targeted for discharge. For instance, members may choose to propose a rule imposing restrictions on the amount of time which may be spent debating the specified legislation, or proscribe the proposal of certain types of amendments as a means of facilitating rapid, orderly debate. After the special rule has been under the consideration of the Rules Committee for seven legislative days, members may file a second discharge petition to extract the proposed special rule from the Rules Committee. Upon the discharge of the special rule, the legislation specified by the original discharge petition may be debated under the restrictions prescribed by the discharged rule. Although often daunting and difficult to effectively employ, successfully filing a discharge petition to preclude Rules Committee consideration of a special rule enables members to bring discharged legislation to the floor under restrictions conducive to timely, orderly debate. Indeed, this process serves as a check on the agenda-setting authority enjoyed by the Rules Committee and majority leadership by permitting a sufficiently large coalition of members to introduce legislation independently of committee influence.
While the discharge procedure would seem to provide members with a feasible means of discharging inert committees and compelling floor consideration of major legislation, members are often reluctant to file or sign discharge motions. Many members, especially those who have accrued significant seniority or serve on particularly prestigious or influential committees, have a vested interest in preserving the strength of the committee system. Indeed, many legislators hesitate to sign discharge petitions for fear of promoting a legislative practice that may be used to challenge their own committee in the future. In addition, members tend to view motions to discharge as disruptions in the normal routine of the House, and may thus resist signing such motions, regardless of their position on the targeted legislation.
In recent years, members have employed the discharge procedure largely for symbolic purposes, rather than as a means to advance legislative aims. Indeed, the structure of the committee system and the pronounced influence of elected leadership frequently preclude the successful discharge of a standing committee. As committees are composed predominantly of members of the majority party, proponents of motions to discharge typically find obtaining support from 218 members in their effort to challenge committee decisions difficult. Moreover, committees tend to act in accordance with majority leadership, who exerts considerable pressure on caucus members to support partisan positions and policy decisions. Unsurprisingly, proponents of discharge petitions are frequently compelled to ask for support from fellow members to obtain the number of signatures necessary to effectuate the desired discharge. However, as evidenced by the brief speech given by Representative Mark Critz on November 17, 2011, these pleas often contain distinctly symbolic partisan overtones.
5. Walter Oleszek, Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011), 165; “Rules of the House for the 112th Congress,” House Committee on Rules, accessed November 18, 2011, http://www.rules.house.gov/singlepages.aspx?NewsID=160&rsbd=165.
Critz, speaking about a bill centered upon alleged currency manipulation committed by the Chinese government currently confined in committee, asserts that passage of the bill would augment American employment. He notes that numerous Republicans have voiced rhetorical support for the bill, and refers to a statement by Speaker Boehner to underscore the bipartisan nature of his discharge petition. He proceeds to assert that the discharge petition he filed to bring the bill to the floor continues to lack necessary Republican support, thereby characterizing his partisan counterparts as concerned more with legislative obstruction, rather than the promulgation of necessary, beneficial legislation. Critz concludes by emphasizing that discharge petitions are public entities, and urges both viewers and his fellow members to pressure remaining holdouts to sign the petition in order to expedite the passage of such worthwhile legislation.
The remarks of Representative Critz illustrate the intensely symbolic function of discharge petitions specifically, and Rule XV methods to circumvent committee consideration of major legislation in general. Although both motions to suspend and motions to discharge typically do not prevail, members frequently employ them for symbolic purposes. Whether to reassert ideological positions, appease constituents, or pressure committees or majority leadership to consider specific legislation, members may attempt to circumvent committee consideration of major legislation for a variety of useful purposes. Indeed, this ability to bypass committees permits members to challenge the considerable agenda-making powers of committees and majority leadership and, in doing so, advance personal and party interests.
Critz, Representative Mark. Speech before the House of Representatives. 112th United
States Congress. November 17, 2011.
House Committee on Rules. “Rules of the House for the 112th Congress.” Accessed November 18, 2011. http://www.rules.house.gov/singlepages.aspx?NewsID=160&rsbd=165.
Nugent, Representative Richard. Speech before the House of Representatives. 112th
United States Congress. November 17, 2011.
Oleszek, Walter J. Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011.
Pearson, Kathryn and Eric Schickler. “Discharge Petitions, Agenda Control, and the Congressional Committee System, 1929-76.” The Journal of Politics 71, no. 4 (October 2009): 1238-56. Accessed November 20, 2011.
Rules of the House of Representatives. Rule XV (2)(B)(1)(a).
Sinclair, Barbara. Unorthodox Lawmaking: New Legislative Processes in the U.S. Congress. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2012.
Smith, Steven S., Jason M. Roberts and Ryan J. Vander Wielen. The American Congress. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Waters, Representative Maxine. Speech before the House of Representatives. 111th
United States Congress. June 30, 2010. http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/HouseSession3925&start=35322.
12. Representative Mark Critz, Speech before the House of Representatives, 112th United States Congress (November 17, 2011), http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/RuleDebat.