Little Used Rule Gives Just 17 Republican Representatives the Power to Halt the Government Shutdown

Wednesday, October 02, 2013
(graphic: Olivia French,

Because of a little used but perfectly valid procedural rule of the House of Representatives, just 17 GOP members of the House could end the federal government shutdown at any time. But because of the dire consequences for their political careers most observers agree it is unlikely to happen.


The rule in question—No. XV of the House Rules—applies in situations where the Speaker of the House refuses to have an up-or-down vote on the House floor, as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is now doing with the Senate-passed continuing resolution that funds the government without delaying health reform. Boehner is applying the so-called “Hastert Rule,” a political principle (not a House rule) named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois), that a Republican Speaker will not allow a bill to the floor if it is not supported by a majority of the Republicans in the House.


Under Rule XV, however, if a majority of House members sign a “discharge petition,” Boehner would have to allow a vote. The House normally has 435 members, but deaths and resignations have dropped that number to 433, meaning that 217 members would need to sign the petition. Given that all 200 Democratic members would sign, only 17 Republican signatures would be needed to force a vote and end the shutdown.


Although Capitol Hill insiders claim that as many as 175 GOP House members do not favor the shutdown, getting even 17 of them to sign a discharge petition may prove impossible, at least for a while. Historically speaking, party unity and discipline have meant that few members are willing to buck their party’s leadership on important issues. In fact, discharge petitions have been successful at getting legislation passed and signed only three times in U.S. history.  

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

How 30 House Republicans are Forcing the Obamacare Fight (by Byron York, Washington Examiner)

A Discharge Petition Will End This Nonsense...And Then, the New Nonsense Begins (by Paul Abrams, Huffington Post)

The Discharge Rule in the House: Recent Use in Historical Context (by Richard S. Beth, Congressional Research Service) (pdf)


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