Order Code 97-552 GOV
Updated March 26, 2001
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
The Discharge Rule in the House:
Principal Features and Uses
Richard S. Beth
Specialist in the Legislative Process
Government and Finance Division
The “discharge rule” of the House of Representatives allows a measure to come to
the floor for consideration, even if the committee of referral does not report it and the
leadership does not schedule it. To initiate this action, a majority of House Members
must first sign a petition for that purpose. The rule permits either (1) the committee of
referral to be discharged from the measure itself; or (2) the Committee on Rules to be
discharged from a special rule for considering the measure. Layover periods required by
the rule permit the Committee on Rules to preempt a discharge attempt, and recover
control of the floor agenda, by securing adoption of an alternative special rule for
considering the measure.
The Discharge Rule and Agenda-Setting in the House
The “discharge rule” of the House of Representatives (Rule XV, clause 2) provides
a means for the House to bring to the floor for consideration a measure (a bill or
resolution) that has not been reported from committee.1 Normally, each measure
introduced in the House is routinely referred to a committee, and cannot receive floor
consideration until the committee reports. Because House committees are in general not
required to report measures, they can normally prevent House action on any referred
measure simply by taking no action thereon. This “gatekeeping” function is a key reason
for the central position of committees in shaping the congressional agenda. The discharge
rule provides one of the few procedures by which the House can circumvent this
More generally, the discharge rule offers the only means by which a majority of
House Members may secure consideration of any measure in the simultaneous absence
of cooperation from the committee of jurisdiction, the majority party leadership, and the
The procedure is so called because it takes the measure away from the committee “charged” with
it. Strictly speaking, therefore, it is the committee, not the measure, that is discharged.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Committee on Rules.2 Other House procedures may permit bringing a measure to the
floor over the opposition of some of these entities, but only through the concurrence of
others. For example, the motion to suspend the rules and pass a measure can bring to the
floor even an unreported measure, because the motion can suspend the rule requiring it to
be reported before it can be considered. The Speaker, however, has discretion in
recognition for this motion, and for this purpose normally recognizes the chair of the
committee of jurisdiction (or designee). Similar practices govern recognition for requests
to consider a measure by unanimous consent. Finally, the House can adopt a “special rule”
directing that a specified unreported measure be “extracted” from committee and taken up
on the floor. Special rules, however, are normally privileged for consideration only when
reported by the Committee on Rules.
Main Features of the Discharge Procedure
The discharge procedure is designed to be difficult to accomplish, so as to discourage
Members from resorting routinely to a procedure that takes control of the floor agenda
away from the entities normally responsible for it. A discharge motion may be offered on
the floor only if a majority of the entire membership of the House, 218 Members, first
signs a petition in support of the action (Delegates are not eligible to sign). A Member
may initiate such a petition only after the measure has remained in committee for at least
30 legislative days without being reported.3 Seldom is a petition filed this soon; Members
generally refrain from initiating one until they consider it clear that the committee does not
plan to act.
The discharge rule explicitly excludes private bills from being subject to discharge.
The Chair once asserted that a resolution to establish an investigating committee also is
immune from discharge. Discharge apparently may be sought on any other measure
pending before a committee of the House.
A Member obtains the petition form at the Clerk’s desk in the House chamber, where
pending petitions are also maintained and made available for signature. The last issue of
the Congressional Record for each week lists Members who have signed (or removed their
signatures from) each pending discharge petition during that week.4 This listing identifies
petitions by measure number, but not by subject. Members may sign or remove their
names until the total of 218 is obtained, at which point the signature list is frozen and
printed in the Record, and the motion is “entered” on the Discharge Calendar. Few
petitions reach this point, and for those that do, the process usually takes some months.
House Rules do, however, provide special means for bringing certain narrowly specified kinds
of measures to the floor without concurrence from any of these entities. Examples include
resolutions of inquiry, questions of privilege of the House, and certain statutory approval and
A new legislative day starts each time the House meets after adjourning.
Until 1993, signatures to discharge petitions were never publicly disclosed except when the total
of 218 was reached. See Subcommittee on Rules of the House, Discharge Petition Disclosure
(cited in references at conclusion).
The motion to discharge may then be offered on the floor, but only at the beginning
of a day’s session that falls at least seven legislative days after the motion is entered, only
on a “discharge day” (the second or fourth Monday of each month), and not during the last
six days of a session of Congress. Any Member who signed the petition may offer the
motion; normally the one who initiated the petition is recognized. The motion is debatable
for 20 minutes, equally divided between supporters and opponents (typically, controlled
by the Member calling it up and the chair of the committee to be discharged). If a simple
majority of Members present and voting adopt the motion, the committee is discharged,
and it is in order for the House to consider the measure, under procedures discussed later
in this report. Because the measure has not been reported, it comes to the floor in the
form introduced, with no recommended committee amendments and no written committee
report for the guidance of Members or to establish legislative history.
Once the House acts on a discharge motion on any measure, any further discharge
action on any measure on the same subject is precluded for that session of Congress (that
is, roughly, for that calendar year). At the final sine die adjournment of a Congress, all
legislative business terminates, including pending discharge petitions.
A discharge motion that never comes to the floor may still serve proponents’
purposes, for a committee may sometimes respond to a discharge effort by reporting the
measure on its own initiative. This response may become increasingly likely as the petition
approaches or obtains the required 218 signatures. Even counting such cases,
nevertheless, rarely do more than two measures on which discharge is attempted reach the
House floor in a single Congress. This has been true ever since the House instituted the
requirement for 218 signatures in 1935. Also, among measures subjected to discharge
attempts and reaching the floor, some fail to pass the House, and only a few have ever
Discharge on Unreported Measures
Within the structure of this general mechanism, the discharge rule incorporates two
distinct approaches: the petition may be filed either directly on the unreported measure
itself, or on a special rule for its consideration. This section and the next two contrast the
implications and potential consequences of these two approaches.
To file the discharge petition directly on the unreported measure is historically the
more common approach. The committee of referral, however, may nullify such a
discharge attempt by reporting the measure, for once it no longer has the measure in its
possession, it can no longer be discharged. The committee may even wait until all 218
signatures are obtained, then report the measure before the next discharge day. The
motion to discharge then cannot be called up, because it is moot. Although the measure
is then procedurally available for floor consideration, it remains unlikely to reach the floor
unless the reporting committee takes action to bring it up. In the past, committees
sometimes even reported adversely on measures on which discharge was sought, which
makes floor consideration still more difficult to achieve.
If 218 signatures are obtained and the committee does not report the measure, the
discharge motion may be called up and the House may adopt it. Any Member who signed
the petition may then move for the House to take up the measure under the appropriate
general rules. (If this motion is defeated, the measure may later be taken up by any of the
usual means, but these, again, are normally under the control of the committee of
jurisdiction, the leadership, and the Committee on Rules.)
If a measure reaching the floor by discharge is a “money bill,” including an
authorization, appropriation, or revenue bill, House Rules mandate that it initially be
considered in Committee of the Whole; the proper motion is therefore that the House
resolve into Committee of the Whole for its consideration. If the House agrees to this
motion, the measure is considered under the equivalent of an “open rule”: the measure is
read by section for amendment, and any germane amendment is in order to each section.
Under these conditions, this first method of discharge offers no possibility of limiting or
structuring the amendment process, or, conversely, of providing any waivers that
prospective amendments might need. In these circumstances, also, the time for general
debate on the measure can be limited and placed under the control of managers only by
If the House agrees to discharge on a measure that is not a “money bill,” then the
motion in order is that the House consider it. On agreement to this motion, the House
considers the measure under the “one-hour rule,” which permits the Member calling the
measure up to move the previous question after one hour of debate. If the House orders
the previous question, it then proceeds to vote on the measure in the form introduced,
before any Member has any opportunity to offer an amendment. Even if the House defeats
the previous question, a Member who led the effort to do so is then normally recognized,
offers an amendment, and at the end of his or her hour moves the previous question on the
amendment and the measure. Under these conditions too, this first method of discharge
provides no way to adapt the terms of consideration and amendment to the circumstances
of the specific measure.
Discharge on Special Rules for Unreported Measures
The second method of discharge was added to House rules in 1931 as a means of
avoiding the difficulties just discussed. Under this second approach, a Member must first
draft and submit a special rule (which takes the form of a House resolution) providing that
a specified measure be considered even if it remains unreported. The special rule may not
permit any non-germane amendments, or provide for consideration of more than one
measure. If the Committee on Rules has not reported this resolution after seven legislative
days, the same (or another) Member may file a petition to discharge that committee from
considering it. At that point, the measure the special rule makes in order must have
remained in committee for at least 30 legislative days, or been reported.
If the petition obtains the requisite 218 signatures, the motion in order on a discharge
day is to discharge the Committee on Rules from the resolution. If that motion is adopted,
the House then considers the resolution under the one-hour rule, just as with any other
special rule. If the resolution itself is then also agreed to, its own terms bring the desired
measure out of committee and to the floor, just as with an “extraction rule” regularly
reported from the Committee on Rules.
This method permits supporters of a measure to propose whatever terms to regulate
the consideration and amendment of the measure they find appropriate to that specific
situation, just as the Committee on Rules normally does. A special rule designed for this
situation normally includes provisions such as (1) that the House resolve into Committee
of the Whole automatically or by motion, rather than at the Speaker’s discretion; and (2)
that consideration continue on subsequent days until a final vote. These provisions guard
against the possibility that a leadership hostile to the measure will be able to recover
control of the floor agenda by turning to other business before the House completes action
on the desired measure.
The chief potential difficulty with this second approach is that it requires Members
to draft the special rule at the beginning of the process, even though, by the time the
measure reaches the floor, judgments about appropriate terms for consideration may have
changed. Care may be required to formulate terms for consideration flexible enough to
accommodate unforeseen circumstances, such as permitting amendments to be offered that
may remedy newly recognized problems or attract desired support.
This second approach to discharge also prevents the committee of jurisdiction from
nullifying the discharge effort by reporting the measure and declining to find a way to call
it up. If the special rule provides for considering a measure whether or not it has been
reported, then even if the committee does report the measure, that action raises no
obstacle to discharge action on the special rule.
House Rules also protect against the possibility that the Committee on Rules itself
might attempt to vitiate a discharge effort by reporting the special rule and then declining
to call it up. If the committee reports any special rule, and then fails to call it up within
seven legislative days, House Rule XIII, clause 6(d) requires the Speaker to recognize any
member of the committee for that purpose, once the member has given one day’s notice
of intent to do so. This requirement protects any discharge effort that can rely on
cooperation from at least one member of the Committee on Rules. Finally, if the
committee reports the special rule adversely, House Rule XIII, clause 6(e), and House
Rule XV, clause 3, require the Speaker, on any discharge day, to recognize any Member
of the House for the purpose of calling up that special rule.
Discharge on Special Rules for Reported Measures
When Members seek to discharge the Committee on Rules from a special rule for
considering an unreported measure, the actual obstacle to action is presumably not the
Committee on Rules, but rather the committee to which the measure is referred. The
Committee on Rules itself could be the obstacle, however, if it declined to report a special
rule for considering a measure that the committee of jurisdiction has reported. Such action
is uncommon today, but was more frequent in the period ending in the mid-1960s, when
the committee often did not work with the leadership in managing the agenda. The second
method of discharge offers recourse in such circumstances as well, for Members may
submit, and seek discharge on, a special rule for considering the already reported measure.
In such cases the reporting committee might even support the attempt to discharge the
Committee on Rules.
Recovery of Agenda Control
through the Committee on Rules
Although the Committee on Rules cannot nullify a discharge attempt directed against
a special rule by reporting the special rule, in recent years it has often taken another course
of action by which it may recover control of the floor agenda. Usually after a discharge
petition has obtained the required 218 signatures, and sometimes when such a result
seemed imminent, the committee has reported, not the special rule on which discharge was
being sought, but its own special rule for considering the same measure (or, sometimes,
for considering an alternative measure on the same subject).
The committee has then called up this special rule during the required layover period
before the discharge motion can be brought to the floor. If the House adopts this
resolution, the measure is then considered under the schedule and terms that the committee
(and perhaps the leadership and the committee of jurisdiction) has found appropriate,
rather than those preferred by the supporters of discharge. These special rules have also
provided that no further action take place pursuant to the original discharge petition.
As a result of these actions, supporters of the measure in question still succeed in
securing its consideration by the House, yet the entities that are normally responsible for
the schedule and terms of action on the floor recover control of those processes. Almost
all measures that have reached the floor in recent years as a result of discharge efforts have
done so by this means, rather than pursuant to the discharge procedure itself.
This course of action does not leave discharge proponents without recourse. If they
dislike the terms for consideration that the Committee on Rules proposes, they can attempt
to defeat the committee’s special rule, thereby retaining the capacity to call up their
discharge motion on the next discharge day. On some recent occasions, the prospect of
such action has led to a negotiated agreement on terms of consideration.
For Further Reference
U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Rules, Subcommittee on Rules of the House,
Discharge Petition Disclosure, hearing on H.Res. 134, 103rd Cong., 1st sess.
(Washington: GPO, 1993). 311 p.
U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, Discharge Rule in the House:
Recent Use in Historical Context, by Richard S. Beth, CRS Report 97-856 GOV
(Washington: updated Nov. 29, 1999). 28 p.