Technically Speaking: Making Sense of Discharge Petitions, Cloture and Filibusters
by Jessica Schieder, 5/5/2014
Articles discussing extending unemployment insurance benefits and raising the minimum wage frequently toss around procedural terms.
How many signatures does a discharge petition have, and how many does it need? Why are all these “procedural” votes necessary before anything gets a final up-or-down vote? How does one filibuster? In civics text books, a filibuster seems to require a passionate, hours-long speech that brings all activity in the Senate to a screeching halt, so why doesn’t that seem to happen in practice?
Realizing we are also guilty of frequently using these terms, the Center for Effective Government wanted to draw up a terminology-conscious update that could serve as a guide to understanding recent headlines describing the progress on Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC), minimum wage, and other legislation.
Democrats in the House have started a number of discharge petitions in recent weeks, which they are using to pressure the majority party (Republicans) into bringing specific issues up for a vote, including:
- Extending Unemployment Compensation: The petition has collected 193 House signatures since being started on March 12, 2014. All but six members of the 199-member Democratic Caucus have signed, but so far, no Republicans have done so.
- Raising the Minimum Wage: (H.R. 1010): One hundred ninety-five House members have signed the petition, but no Republicans have joined. Twenty-three Republicans are needed for the petition to succeed.
- Comprehensively Reforming Immigration (H.R. 15): This peitition currently has 191 signatures, but no Republican has signed on, even though some have previously voiced support for reform.
Policy proposals are considered in committee before being considered by all representatives. A discharge petition is a useful tool when a proposal is stuck in a committee. Any member of the House can file a petition. After the petition is filed, the member is given 30 days to gather signatures. If, at the end of those 30 days, the petition receives 218 signatures, or a majority of the House, the petition will be considered on either the “second or fourth Monday of the month after a seven legislative day layover (except during the last six days of any session when the layover is waived).” If the discharge is successful, the bill is automatically moved out of committee and onto the House floor for a vote. As a historical note, the first-ever successful discharge petition in the House was filed to push the initial federal minimum wage law, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, out of committee and on its way to approval on the House floor.
Discharge petitions very infrequently lead to bills successfully becoming laws. According to Roll Call, only three discharged bills have become law since the tool was first created. Nonetheless, a discharge petition gives members, usually of the House minority party, an action around which they can organize supporters and keep media attention on an issue.
A similarly named mechanism exists in the Senate, but a Senate discharge resolution differs significantly from the House discharge petition, including a provision that allows it to be blocked even after a majority of senators sign the resolution.
Voting on Cloture on a Motion to Proceed
We were thrilled on March 27, 2014, when the Senate bill to extend Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) passed a key procedural vote. Ten Republicans joined Democrats to move forward with the EUC bill by a vote of 65-34.
It might seem redundant, but senators vote on proceeding with the legislation before they take a final vote on a bill. Senators who voted for cloture on March 27 were in other words voicing the opinion, “I agree this proposal is important enough to be voted on by the entire Senate.”
In total, 60 senators must vote for cloture. If any fewer vote for cloture, the measure is expected to be filibustered. In practice, if a bill does not get 60 votes, the measure is considered defeated, as moving to a final vote would almost inevitablely lead to the measure being blocked by a filibuster.
The Modern Filibuster
In civics class, students are often taught about the ability senators have to filibuster a bill that they strongly oppose. Civics teachers describe the potential for hours-long speeches with the image of frail senators clinging onto the podium for dear life while swaying for lack of sleep and adequate nutrition.
In practice, however, filibusters can take multiple forms. On Wednesday, headlines reported that Republicans had “filibustered” the minimum wage bill, but there were no prolonged speeches. The Republicans had refused to vote for cloture, and the bill was prevented from moving forward by a vote of 54 to 42, with 60 votes needed.
Conscious of the limited time the Senate has for handling the nation’s business, leadership is careful to avoid filibusters as they could waste an immense amount of the chamber's time.
Perhaps if senators were made to give hours-long speeches to block legislation, they would be in less of a rush to block legislation so regularly.
For Further Reading:
Emergency Unemployment Benefits Bill Passes the Senate, Increasing Pressure on the House, The Fine Print blog, April 8, 2014
Stories of Americans Cut Off of Emergency Unemployment Compensation, Government Matters, April 22, 2014
Emergency Unemployment Extension Expected to Take Back Seat to Tax Extenders, The Fine Print blog, April 25, 2014
Technically Speaking: Making Sense of Discharge Petitions, Cloture and Filibusters, The Fine Print blog, May 5, 2014
Unemployed Americans Kicked Out of Capitol, Forced to Share Their Stories Outside, The Fine Print, May 10, 2014
Six Months after Emergency Unemployment Benefits Expired, 2.8 Million Americans Left Behind, The Fine Print, May 20, 2014