The Export-Import Bank appears to be back from the dead. Supporters put together a “discharge petition” to get a bill renewing it to the House floor, and now have 218 signatures – which means it will most likely receive a vote and pass the House.
What happened? Most likely it’s because the House Freedom Caucus radicals who opposed it overreached.
Recall that the Export-Import Bank went out of business because Congress did not reauthorize it by the summer deadline. An overall majority supported it in the House, but Republicans refused to bring up the bill for a vote. And that was where it appeared to have ended, until today.
A discharge petition is a mechanism for the majority of the House to override normal procedures and force a vote on something that has been bottled up in committee. Discharge petitions rarely succeed, even when a majority supports the bill, because, if members of the majority party sign on, it undermines that party’s control of the House floor, which in turn is the main procedural source of its power.
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Even in an age of party polarization, potential cross-party majorities exist on lots of issues. For example, there were reportedly 218 votes – a House majority – available in the last Congress to pass the Senate’s immigration-reform bill before it was blocked. But the majority party – the speaker, the leadership and the Rules Committee – controls what actually gets considered on the House floor. And they can agree to consider only the items their party wants and no others.
That’s the root of the “Hastert rule” – a practice by which the members of the majority party agree to advance measures only if a majority of their party supports them.
So why did Republicans sign the discharge petition this time?
The norm of supporting the party in procedural matters may be so weak right now that Republican supporters of the bank simply saw no reason to abide by it. After all, House Freedom Caucus radicals are threatening to defect on the floor vote for the new speaker – the most important party vote there can be. So if they’re going to use their leverage to throw the House into disarray and make Republicans look foolish, why shouldn’t a different party faction use its own leverage where it can?
Emotion may also be at play. The one issue on which the House Freedom Caucus differs from much of the party is on the Export-Import Bank. On its list of demands to speaker candidates, the caucus includes opposition to the bank’s existence. It may be particularly gratifying to frustrated mainstream conservatives and moderates to sign the discharge petition now, in the middle of the turmoil over the speaker caused by a small number of radicals who refuse to work with the rest of their party.
About those insurgents’ demands: Among the things they are asking for is to reduce the power of both the party and the committees to control the House floor, and to open it up to minority factions of either party.
So once again, the radicals are little more than a suicide squad that is constantly plotting against its own (proclaimed) interests.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.