It’s a little gimmicky. It may not pass. If it did pass, it might not do any good. It may not even be constitutional. But, for now, it’s helping change the conversation in Washington.
The No Budget No Pay Act of 2013, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday, would withhold paychecks from members of Congress if their house, the House or the Senate, fails to pass a budget by this April 15. They would get their money when they do pass one or, failing that, at the end of their terms.
We’re talking about this idea because it’s been almost four years (April 2009, to be exact) since the Senate has passed a budget – not a balanced budget, but a budget, period.
Budgets don’t have to be followed, but they are important because they force Congress to at least pretend to set priorities. Because everything benefits somebody, each of the past four years, the federal government has spent more than a trillion dollars more than it has collected. Those deficits have helped the cumulative national debt reach $16.4 trillion, which is more than $50,000 for every American.
So a nonpartisan group, No Labels, came up with the No Budget No Pay idea that was stricter than the one that eventually passed the House. It slowly gained momentum, and then Wednesday the House approved it as part of a bill that extended the debt ceiling three months. Voting yes were all four of Arkansas’ representatives: Reps. Rick Crawford, Tim Griffin, Steve Womack and Tom Cotton. Arkansas Sen. John Boozman announced his support on Wednesday.
Arkansas’ other senator, Mark Pryor, hasn’t said which way he’ll vote, but Michael Teague, his chief of staff, listed Pryor’s concerns in an interview and said he would have to see the final Senate bill before making up his mind. He might vote for it if that’s his only choice.
Pryor and others in Congress have problems with the bill for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that the 27th Amendment to the Constitution prohibits Congress from "varying" its own compensation until another House election has passed.
Also, the House bill doesn’t actually punish Congress for failing to pass a budget. It punishes each house that doesn’t pass a budget. So the House could pass whatever it wants, the Senate could do likewise, and even if they couldn’t bridge the difference, or didn’t even try, everyone still would get their paycheck.
The Senate version on which Boozman and Pryor would vote is more airtight, and also more suspect constitutionally. Under its provisions, if the Senate and House can’t agree on a budget by Oct. 1, everybody loses their paycheck and never gets the money back.
Despite its problems, No Budget No Pay looks like it might actually help produce a budget, which is a necessary first step to producing a balanced one. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democrats’ majority leader, has said he will allow the House version of the bill to come to the floor. Sen. Patty Murray, chairperson of the Senate Budget Committee, said Wednesday, the day No Budget No Pay passed, that her committee will pass a budget resolution this year.
Maybe this is the only way to return Congress to regular order. While humans will sometimes sacrifice their own interests for the greater good, what really changes behaviors are personal rewards and punishments. You know, stimulus response-type stuff. Most members of Congress surely don’t want the next generation to inherit bills it cannot pay, but what they really don’t want is to have bills they themselves cannot pay. And since voters so far haven’t been willing to turn them out of office for failing to do their jobs, this may be the only other option.
So no budget, no pay? Whatever it takes, though no budget, no re-election would be a lot better.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be followed on Twitter at @stevebrawner.