By Kelly McCutchen
For many years, members of the U.S. House of Representatives have managed to have it both ways–on record as favoring popular legislation, but going along with the House “leadership” to ensure that the legislation is never voted on. Recently, however, this ruse has been uncovered, and a little-known parliamentary procedure, the discharge petition, is being used as a weapon against the entrenched power of committee chairs.
The discharge petition gives Congressmen the ability to force a floor debate on legislation being held in committee. If a majority of House members signs the discharge petition, the bill is removed from its committee and goes directly to the floor for action. The discharge petition does not necessarily require a vote on the bill; it simply allows a popular bill to be debated in the open.
Until this year, Congressmen who refused to sign a discharge petition escaped accountability because House rules prohibited public access to the petitions. Congress was pressured into public disclosure earlier this year by several maverick Congressmen who compromised the secrecy of the petitions by leaking the names of petition signees to the media. Public access has allowed the media to spotlight those elected officials who publicly declare their support for a certain piece of legislation, yet fail to take action. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently published a list of Congressmen who co-sponsored the A-to-Z Spending Reduction Bill, yet refused to sign the discharge petition and bring it to the floor for debate.
A strong case can be made that Georgia needs a similar discharge procedure for the General Assembly.
In the vast majority of cases, the committee system used by the General Assembly to screen legislation works well, preventing bad legislation from reaching the floor and allowing legislators to develop expertise in particular subject areas. However, there are occasions when the committee system is used to prevent reasonable legislation from being voted on, despite overwhelming support. For instance, over half of the bills passed in the Georgia Senate during the 1993 and 1994 sessions of the General Assembly never made it to the House floor for debate.
In these situations, a discharge process would ensure that popular, well-reasoned bills are not held hostage by a small group of lawmakers, or even a single committee chair. Moreover, the petitions should be made public so that each legislator is on the record as to whether a bill should be discharged.
Poll after poll indicates that voters lack confidence in their elected officials. A discharge petition process would make the legislative process in Georgia more open and responsive, without undermining our representative form of government.
Kelly McCutchen is Executive Director of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a nonpartisan, member-supported research and education organization based in Atlanta, Georgia. The Foundation promotes free enterprise, limited government and individual responsibility.
Nothing written here is to be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (August 23, 1994). Permission is hereby given to reprint this article, with appropriate credit given.