House Democrats seem to have fallen in love with the discharge petition this year. A rarely used — and almost never successful — procedural gambit, the discharge petition allows a bill to move out of committee and onto the floor if it is signed by a majority of House members. Conventional wisdom holds that Democrats are using discharge petitions to score political points in an election year, which is true. But by doing so, Democrats are also creating an opening for Republican centrists to make themselves more relevant — and Congress more functional.
Wednesday, Democrats filed a discharge petition on behalf of a bill that would extend unemployment insurance benefits. Last month they filed one in support of a bill to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. And the idea of filing a petition on behalf of the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate last year has been percolating since January.
The last time a discharge petition succeeded was in 2002, when 22 Republicans joined with Democrats to force a vote on McCain-Feingold, which tightened campaign finance regulations. Few people believe any of this year's petitions will succeed legislatively. But for Democrats, success can also be measured politically, by forcing Republicans — especially centrists in swing districts — to explain unpopular positions to key voting blocs.
Some Republican moderates would support taking action on immigration reform, the minimum wage and unemployment insurance — if only to remove them as election-year issues. But out of party loyalty, and fearing punishment, they toe the party line. As a result, they are almost entirely marginalized. House Speaker John Boehner relies on them when necessary to prevent party embarrassments — passing a clean debt-limit bill this year and Hurricane Sandy relief last year — but otherwise they are often bystanders. They watch from the sidelines as tea party supporters threaten revolt whenever Boehner suggests movement toward the center, which has made it all but impossible for the House and Senate to work together.
Republican moderates could break this stalemate by threatening their own revolt: joining a discharge petition. In doing so, they could shift the balance of power in the House, if only modestly — and give Boehner greater leverage over the tea partyers.
What if, for instance, a bloc of Republican moderates threatened to sign a discharge petition for the immigration bill, which attracted 14 Republican votes in the Senate? Boehner would then be forced to go to the rest of the caucus and say, in effect, “We have no choice: We have to move on immigration reform.”
Or moderates could threaten to sign the minimum wage discharge petition unless Boehner moved a bill with a smaller increase, or a bill expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit — or a bill combining the two.
It may be easiest for moderate Republicans to organize around the unemployment insurance extension. They could threaten to sign a discharge petition unless Boehner committed to a Republican version of the bill that also contained something on their wish list — perhaps an increase in benefits for veterans.
There are 199 Democrats in the House, so a successful discharge petition would require at least 19 Republicans — and probably closer to 25 — to succeed. The trouble is, moderate Republicans are only very loosely organized, mostly around the too timid Tuesday Group. Planning an operation of this sort is like orchestrating a palace coup: It requires planning and organizing in secret, which is hard to do in Washington. And the cost of failure — in committee assignments and campaign support — is steep. That fear of defeat, more than anything else, has kept moderates on the sidelines, grumbling about their lack of influence.
They should stop complaining and start organizing. Holding Boehner hostage would be the best thing that could happen to him — and Washington — this year.
Francis Barry is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter at @FSBarry.