Veteran CBS newsman Bob Schieffer read a commentary at the end of this week's Face The Nation that deserves some attention (and some applause, for that matter). He was speaking on a number of issues -- President Obama's recent press conference, the posturing both the White House and Congress is now engaged in over budget matters, and the impending government shutdown if a deal can't be worked out by the fourth of March. But, while circuitous, this commentary ended on a note which made me want to cheer [PDF download of the transcript, or watch the video]:
Now they’re [Congress] off for another vacation. This one to celebrate Presidents' Day, which reminds me: who but Congress gets a full week off for Presidents' Day? ... Here is the really scary part. Once the vacation break is over, there will be only four days or so to work out a compromise to keep the government running. Can they do it? Let’s hope so. But it is a long way to go with a short time to get there, which allows me to do my own posturing. What if we paid Congress only for the days members actually spent on the job here in Washington?
We might save a bundle on that one.
I have to say that I'm with you on that one, Bob.
Seriously, how many people does anyone know who get a whole week off for Presidents' Day?!? Congress doesn't take vacations one day at a time, instead it takes off whole weeks -- at the drop of a stovepipe hat. This has long annoyed me, but it becomes particularly odious when Congress is faced with a very serious deadline -- one that might wind up with a government shutdown -- and nobody even suggests that they might want to get back to work while this clock is ticking down. Not Harry Reid, not John Boehner, not Nancy Pelosi, not Mitch McConnell, not any Tea Party Republican -- nobody has even entertained the idea that Congress should forego just one of their weeklong "district work periods" (which any sane Human Resources department would call "vacations").
They don't care -- because they get paid either way. Both the Republicans and the Democrats are playing a game of "chicken" over the budget for the remainder of this fiscal year, and they both tell us "there's only a few days to get this done" -- while conveniently ignoring the whole week they're taking off right beforehand. It's not even an election year, so they don't even have that rather thin excuse for their inaction.
This political game could have very serious consequences. A federal government shutdown wouldn't just mean shuttered federal offices and locked National Park gates -- it would also mean Social Security checks stop being mailed out. This could have disastrous consequences for millions of Americans. But there are 535 Americans who aren't taking the situation very seriously, because a weeklong vacation is apparently more important to them than avoiding such an outcome.
Bob Schieffer is right. Congress should only get paid for the weeks when they show up to do some of the people's business. That would cut their pay by roughly one-third to one-half, if recent congressional calendars are any indication.
In fact, I would go even further. Out here in California, a referendum just passed which cuts off all legislator pay the day the budget is due. This money cannot be backdated or repaid to the lawmakers in any way, either. If the budget isn't in place, then their paychecks stop -- until it is. Since the law is new, nobody has seen it in action yet. In a few months, we're going to see if this is any sort of motivating factor for these ladies and gentlemen to do the job they were elected to do. California budgets are notorious for being late -- months and months late, in a usual year. Sometimes our state budget is so late, the government starts issuing "IOUs" instead of paychecks to all state employees. But I'd be willing to bet that the process is going to move along quite a bit quicker this year, now that the lawmakers' own pay will be affected.
We should do this for the United States Congress, as well. The federal budget is supposed to be in place the first of October every year. We still don't have a budget in place for 2012, which is what the showdown is going to be all about next week. We've gone over four and a half months without a budget, so far. But I would be willing to bet that we would have had an official budget by now (and not just a continuing resolution, either), if every senator and representative hadn't been paid one thin dime since last September. Granted, many folks in Congress are independently wealthy (especially in the Senate), but not all are -- some of them rely on their paychecks just like any other wage slave. Some of them, by this point, wouldn't even have enough to pay for a plane ticket back to their home district to take a week off in February.
Congressional pay should be restructured just like any private company -- only the hours worked should be paid for. If Congress wants to spend five weeks on vacation in August, that is fine and good. But they would get paid 5/52nds less of their annual salary as a direct result. Any other week off would dock their yearly pay and additional 1/52nd -- just like the private sector. And all pay would cease on the first of October until every budget bill and every appropriations bill has been signed by the president -- and continuing resolutions would not count.
Of course, I realize that this is never going to happen. Because guess who sets congressional pay and the rules by which they are paid? You got it -- Congress itself.
But, like Bob Schieffer, I can still dream of a change for the better....
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant