California has just concluded its first test of a radical concept: if legislators can't manage to do one of the most basic tasks they are hired to do in a timely manner, then cut their pay. No on-time budget? No paycheck. Period. And while there's not enough data to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions, the idea seemed to work exactly as it was designed: this time around, the politicians were very personally motivated to do their job.
Without getting too far into the weeds of the California budget process, here's what just happened. The California legislature just passed a budget, two days before last year's budget expired. This is not exactly unprecedented, but it certainly is a rarity -- in most recent years, the budget hasn't met this milestone. Of course, the milestone it was supposed to hit was missed (or not, depending on whom you ask). By law, the legislators were supposed to have put something on Governor Jerry Brown's desk on June 15. There was an attempt to meet this deadline -- in a "kind of" sort of manner -- which was directly attributable to the fact that lawmakers were about to stop being paid.
In the last election cycle, a citizens' referendum was placed on the ballot to cut the legislators' pay if they didn't pass a budget through both houses of the state congress, and put it on the governor's desk by June 15. It passed overwhelmingly. The current budget cycle was the first test of the new law.
Complicating matters -- at least when it comes to drawing hard conclusions -- was the fact that California voters also passed another landmark change in the way budgets are approved in the state. A separate proposition passed which changed the rules in a big way for budget bills in the legislature. Instead of the insanely-high requirement that all budget bills pass with a two-thirds majority in both houses, California wisely voted to use the standard most other states use -- a simple majority. The only catch was the legislature still needed to hit the two-thirds threshold if they wanted to raise taxes.
The importance of the majority rule cannot be overstated, because with the two-thirds requirement, a few Republicans always had to vote against their party in order to pass a Democratic budget. Now -- as long as taxes are not raised -- Democrats can pass budgets on their own, with no Republican votes necessary. This also was an enormous factor in what just happened in Sacramento, and is the prime reason why it is impossible to say that freezing legislators' pay was the main motivating factor.
On June 15, the legislature did pass a budget. They thought they had discovered a loophole in the pay-cutting law. The law, after all, didn't say that the governor had to sign whatever they passed -- as long as they put something on his desk that had made it through both houses, the lawmakers thought they'd continue to get paid. So they hustled through a budget which was patently unacceptable on its face -- a budget they knew would never make it into law. By doing so, they were taunting Governor Brown by saying, in essence: "There -- we passed a 'budget' you'll never sign, now where's my paycheck?"
The Democratic legislators were positive they'd wiggled out of any possible pay cuts. Brown vetoed the budget -- the first time that's ever happened in the state -- and the budget squabbles continued. But then the state controller (also a Democrat) ruled that the budget the Democratic legislators had passed was not "balanced," and therefore didn't qualify under the pay-cutting law. Since Controller John Chiang was the guy who signed the paychecks, he had the power to stop them. Which he did.
And for the next twelve days, California legislators worked for free. They each lost an average of $4,830 in that period. Some of them (Democrats and Republicans) even had the gall to whine about not being paid in public. This was met with precisely zero sympathy from the public.
Yesterday, they passed a budget. It did not rely on gimmicks or budgetary tricks -- another first in modern California budgets -- and it gave Brown many of the things he had been fighting for over the past six months or so. And the legislators cannot award themselves the back pay they missed -- that's one of the beautiful things about the new law.
Once again, the fact that no Republican votes were necessary in either house of the state congress has to be stressed, when measuring how fast the budget was passed after the deadline. Picking up those few Republican votes has, in the past, been one of the main reasons why deals don't get cut earlier.
But you've got to wonder how much motivation not getting paid provided as well. This is only the state legislature, after all -- not everyone who gets elected to the California Assembly or Senate is a millionaire (from either party).
The obvious question to ask, at this point, is whether this would be a good idea on the national level or not. I've always been a strong proponent of the concept -- if United States Congressmen can't do one of the basic jobs we hire them to perform, then why should we pay them? But every time I bring it up, I am reminded (in the comments section) that doing so may fall afoul of the Constitution, which has some explicit things to say about how Congress gets paid.
Even if that is an obstacle, though, it certainly wouldn't preclude other states from passing similar laws about their own state legislatures. If the idea started sweeping across the country (especially in states where citizens' referenda are possible), then it could spark a national debate on the issue. It seems a prime issue to be grandstanded as a possible constitutional amendment, at least to me personally. The message is decidedly populist, and either party could claim the mantle if they chose to do so. After all, it's a simple (and non-partisan) message: "Don't do your job -- don't get paid!"
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant