Ukraine aid could be saved by obscure congressional rules, Reagan-era politics, Boll Weevils and Gypsy Moths

It’s a little late in 2024 to compose an “in and out” list.

Baby reveals are apparently in. Swag is in. So are press-on nails.

The outs? Supposedly podcasts. (Really?) Mullets (I thought they already were). Vaping.

Congress is usually behind the times. So, that’s why it took Capitol Hill until spring to craft an “in and out” list. It’s a pretty short list.

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Let’s start with what’s out: “Discharge petitions.” 

And, if you’re cutting edge, what could soon be in? “Defeating the previous question.”

The U.S. Capitol (Bill Clark)

I know. This is going to require some explaining. Especially if you are not a creature of Capitol Hill — and even if you are a creature of Capitol Hill.

But why are we thinking about a “discharge petition” and “defeating the previous question?”

These are obscure, but critical parliamentary tools in the House of Representatives lawmakers might use to either fund the government or send money to Ukraine.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has been dubious about sending aid to Ukraine — even after the Senate adopted a bill with 70 members voting yes in February.

Both a “discharge petition” and “defeating the previous question” are methods for a majority of House members to bypass the House speaker and either put a bill on the floor against his or her wishes or seize control of the floor. 

Both gambits are rarely successful. The House has only successfully gone over the head of the speaker with a discharge petition twice in the past 23 years. For a defeat of “moving the previous question,” one must reel back to the 1980s.

Mike Johnson

Speaker Mike Johnson is holding firm to his position on needing border security measures in exchange for Ukraine aid. (Getty Images )

We might usually dismiss such esoteric, enigmatic parliamentary ploys to go around the speaker. But not in present circumstances. 

The House Republican majority has dwindled to a svelte two seats. Johnson struggles to get GOP members to even put Republican-authored legislation on the floor. The only time anything of consequence gets done in the House during the 118th Congress is when a chunk of Democrats team up with a smaller cluster of Republicans. This oddball, congressional clump has approved multiple bills to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling over the past several months. Democrats have carried most of the weight each time.

Thus, we find ourselves in a unique position where things are ripe to possibly bypass the speaker’s office.

You can discharge yourself of the notion that a discharge petition is the only route to go to pass a bill to assist Ukraine. A discharge petition requires a solid figure of 218 House members — regardless of the size of the House. If you get 218 co-signers, you can bring up a bill on the floor without the blessing of the leadership. 

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There are two active discharge petitions in the House now. One is from Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. Her plan would compel the House to act on the Senate’s foreign aid bill from February. The other discharge petition is from Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa. Fitzpatrick’s measure includes a more narrow spending package for Ukraine but includes border security.

Some Republican lawmakers are reluctant to consider either discharge petition. They believe it looks bad to undercut the GOP leadership.

But in late February, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., told CBS there was “a 40-45% shot” to go around the leadership another way. That’s the “defeating the previous question” gambit.

Republican North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., told CBS there was “a 40-45% shot” to go around the leadership another way.  (Nathan Howard)

“Defeating the previous question is something like a nuclear device,” said McHenry. “It is a vast act of war.”

So what is “defeating the previous question?”

The House must often take an initial vote to compel a second vote on the issue at hand. Kind of voting to agree to take a vote. This often comes up when the House is considering a “rule” to manage floor debate. That primary vote is called “ordering the previous question,” or a “PQ” in congressional shorthand. If the House adopts the PQ, it has “voted to have the next vote.” That almost always happens.

But things get a little weird if the House defeats the previous question.

The minority — or whoever is trying to defeat the PQ — then marshals control of the House floor for an hour. They can bring up anything they want. In this potential case, a “rule” to set the parameters of debate on a bill to aid Ukraine.

In short, if the House approves the rule, then it’s on to debate on the Ukraine bill. And then a vote on the bill.

But “defeating the previous question” is rarely successful. The last successful defeat of a previous question came in 1988. Before that, 1981. But what happened in 1981 was of historical significance.

Biden and Zelenskyy at Oval Office

President Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the Oval Office of the White House Sept. 21, 2023, in Washington.  (Evan Vucci)

Democrats controlled the House back in the 1980s. However, there was a bloc of conservative Democrats who broke with late House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., and voted with Republicans to get a massive tax cut plan by President Ronald Reagan onto the floor. 

How did they do it? The rump group of Democrats voted with late House Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill., to “defeat the previous question.” The Republicans and conservative Democrats teamed up to bypass O’Neill and get a vote on “Reaganomics.” The tax cuts passed the House — all with the assistance of Democrats.

What did they call those Democrats? Boll weevils.

A look at the political taxonomy:

The boll weevil is an invasive pest that infests cotton plants in the South. Conservative, southern Democrats were sometimes called Boll Weevils in the 1930s and 1940s. They backed much of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s economic agenda. But they opposed desegregation.

Late Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas, was one of those Boll Weevils in the 1980s. He embraced the moniker, suggesting that, like the beetle, it was hard to eradicate southern, conservative Democrats from the party. Thus, they emerged as a key part of Reagan’s coalition in Congress.

By the same token, there were Northeastern and Midwestern, moderate Republicans who opposed some of Reagan’s agenda. They deemed themselves the “Gypsy Moths.”

Like the boll weevil, the gypsy moth is also an invasive species. Those critters feast on trees.

The congressional gypsy moths did not defect from Reagan on the tax cuts. But they tried to exercise independence from the White House heading into the 1982 midterm elections. About 30 gypsy moths voted against overriding the President’s veto of a spending package.

And, for the record, a group of moths is technically referred to as an “eclipse” of moths.

Mike Johnson Tiktok vote

U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, center, walks through Statuary Hall during a vote at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., March 13, 2024.  (Al Drago)

Most of these boll weevils and gypsy moths eventually flitted back to their home parties later.

However, there is a reason why we write about the gypsy moths and boll weevils when it comes to aiding Ukraine. It’s possible lawmakers could turn to “defeating the previous question” as a mechanism to seize control of the floor and put a Ukraine aid package on the floor. 

But the chances of a defeated “PQ” as a viable parliamentary option for advocates of Ukraine to succeed are the highest they’ve been since the Reagan tax cut vote in 1981. In this case, most Democrats support the Ukraine aid bill — blended with an odd mixture of some Republicans. But, unlike 1981, it’s not the Democrats who might betray leadership. This would be Republicans. And while it’s not the same coalition of Gypsy Moths who sometimes defected from the GOP brass in the 1980s, those Republicans who would help Ukraine are mostly from the north and Midwest.

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How or if Ukraine ever gets aid is unclear. And one can debate if a “discharge petition” or a “defeating the previous question” is on the “in” or “out” list.

But the real question for lawmakers is whether aiding Ukraine is on the “in” or “out” list for members of Congress.

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