There’s this ingenious thing called the discharge petition, which means that, in principle, if a majority in the House of Representatives wants to vote on a bill, they can make it happen without the leadership’s permission.
But the proposed discharge petition cannot be a viable way of achieving comprehensive reform, unless Republicans conclusively give up on their talk of an effort to address the issue. That seems unlikely to happen. So, instead, it is a potential way to get Republicans to pass whatever piecemeal provisions they may be bothered to pass. It’s not a particularly effective way to get that to happen, either, but it seems better than nothing.
The discharge petition won’t be a way to pass immigration reform. This is because possibly sympathetic Republicans aren’t willing to support it — and the root cause they aren’t willing to support it is because the Republican caucus won’t slam the door shut on doing something on their own about the issue.
A few months ago, the discharge petition seemed to me to be at least a decent last-ditch concept: Wouldn’t there at least be 20 House Republicans (about the number that would be needed for a petition to work) who think immigration reform is important enough to break with their hesitant party on it? And wouldn’t the House Republican leadership, which subtly does seem to want some kind of reform to pass but is afraid of their caucus, largely spare the rebels from retribution?
Maybe the politics of the discharge petition were always too complicated.
This story by Politico actually does a good job at highlighting the dilemma when it discusses the timing of a potential move.
Should Democrats push the discharge petition now because time is running out to pass immigration reform? Or should they wait until the Republicans have clearly given up on trying to do anything themselves (the embers of effort are still flickering)?
The Republican caucus, as reflected in its statement of principles, has made clear that if it’s going to pass something on immigration, it’ll be something the House Republicans came up with. (They may not actually agree with the rest of the sentiments in that statement of principles, but the idea that they won’t work from the Senate bill seems to be well supported.) As long as this process of coming up with their own way of addressing the issue is allegedly going on, a Republican supporting a discharge petition proposed by Democrats is a grievous offense. Ideally, it would seem straightforward that after Republicans close the door on immigration reform, the rebels (facing pressure in their districts, or acting out of a sense of the urgent need for reform) could side with the rest of the chamber’s Democrats to pass it. The rebels could no longer be accused of subverting their party’s efforts to address the issue and, as established, the Republican leadership would not be too interested in punishing them.
The problem right now is that Republicans are slow-pedaling immigration reform without actually killing it. Such a situation is probably the most comfortable short-term position possible for people like John Boehner, caught between a realization that Republicans should, for self-interested reasons, really do something about immigration, and a caucus whose ideological commitments prevent them from doing that, but don’t prevent them from talking about it vaguely. So, the opportunity to ease the partisan logics currently obstructing the success of a discharge petition never arises — as long as the Republican House leadership keeps up the pretense of doing something about immigration.
Necessarily, then, the support for a discharge petition will carry too much of a partisan taint for it to be viable. Hence:
The move of instigating a discharge petition cannot escape the partisan logics that have largely frozen our political system generally. So what the discharge petition becomes it not a procedural “Hail Mary” for comprehensive reform — Republicans will not close the door sufficiently on acting in time for that to happen — but rather a spur toward the Republicans to act in their way. They hold out some prospect of acting in some way toward the goals of immigration reform, so see if the discharge petition can light a fire under them (and especially under the members of their caucus who have pledged to support immigration reform).
I think that sometimes the only way to move an opponent is to make them feel political consequences for their current position — it’s a tried and true political concept that comes closer to causing change than anything else. The only reason we can talk at all about immigration reform during this Congress is because Democrats and their voters made sure the 2012 election communicated clearly to the GOP how big an electoral problem its intransigence on immigration was. If the discharge petition isn’t going to actually attract any Republican support — a scenario which appears increasingly likely, since Republicans won’t decisively slam the door on their own efforts — I’d say the Democrats press the issue sooner rather than later, make the issue hurt as much as possible, and see what happens.
The easier solution would be if houses of Congress could just vote on proposals that enjoyed majority support.