Both houses of Congress are currently considering a bill which, in my humble estimation, would be wildly popular with the public -- if they knew about it, that is. This is a truly non-partisan issue, one that pits every taxpayer in the country against the 535 members of Congress themselves -- regardless of their party affiliation. The idea is a simple one, as evidenced by the bill's official title: the "No Budget, No Pay Act."
That's it in a nutshell. The title is so good, it barely needs explaining. If Congress doesn't pass a completed budget on time -- both the budget blueprint and the 12 appropriations bills necessary -- then when the new federal fiscal year dawns on the first of October, they stop getting paid. Their paychecks halt until the budget is complete, and they are not allowed to (later on, under the cover of night) award themselves retroactive pay for this period.
Quick survey: how many of you, upon reading that last paragraph, thought that sounds like a dandy idea? Passing a budget is one of the most important duties which Congress has. Yet, year after year, they fail to perform their duties on time. Some years there are "continuing resolutions" which allow the government to keep spending money, essentially on autopilot, and some years there are gigantic budget battles -- but, either way, Congress normally fails to meet the deadline. No matter which party happens to be in charge, I should point out.
I personally am a big fan of the idea. In fact, I've written three columns over the years with almost exactly the same title as the bill. The first I wrote in 2007, when Democrats controlled both houses (as I said, this is a non-partisan issue). I concluded this article with:
Luckily, there's an easy solution to this problem. Well, easy to state and easy to understand, but perhaps impossible politically -- seeing as how it would have to be written into law by the very people who will be directly affected. But one can always hope.
Here's how to fix the problem: if the budget isn't in place by October 1st each year, then everything in the entire federal government could be funded from that point on by a continuing resolution with one exception -- the paychecks of everyone in Congress and the president would end, until a full budget was in place. We, the people (their employers) would cut their pay until they got the job done. Want to bet that would speed the process up?
No budget, no paycheck.
The second time I wrote about this was in 2011, when California had just passed a ballot initiative which forced this law upon our state government. California was even worse, in some ways, than the federal government. In the past decade, records were set for how long our state limped along without a budget -- six months, eight months, nine months.... The state couldn't just print money to paper over the gap, either, which resulted in state employees getting paid (you cannot make this sort of thing up) with "IOUs." The people put an end to such irresponsibility and gross incompetence, though, with the new law.
Which I wrote about in my third article, again calling for such action on a national scale:
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 [Governor Jerry] 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.
In short, it worked. Exactly how it was intended to work: it lit a fire under the legislators to get their act together and do their job. The budget was late by less than two weeks -- quite an improvement from eight or nine months. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that this year a budget appears on time.
But now I'm not just a lonely voice crying in the wilderness. Today, the "No Budget, No Pay Act" was debated in a Senate committee. At this writing, the bill has six co-sponsors: Senators John Boozman, Richard Burr, Saxby Chambliss, Joe Manchin, Olympia Snowe, and David Vitter. In the House, the bill has 34 co-sponsors.
At first glance, this might seem like a partisan stunt. Senate Republicans have been making political hay over how many days the Senate has gone without completing a budget for years now (their count is over 1,000 days). Senator Joe Manchin is the only Democratic co-sponsor in his chamber, but the House bill has attracted a more bipartisan group.
In fact, one of the House co-sponsors is the Populist Caucus Chair, Representative Bruce Braley (D-IA). I contacted his office because I thought he could provide a bit of balance from the Senate bill, and Braley did not mince words: "In the real world, there are real consequences if deadlines aren't met. There should also be real consequences if Congress can't meet its deadlines. I can think of few stronger incentives to get politicians to do their job than tying their pay to their job performance. This idea is a powerful way to restore a little common sense to a Congress that has none."
A good idea is a good idea, no matter which side of the political aisle comes up with it. Democrats shouldn't be put off by the bill, and should support it on its merits. To put it another way: election year grandstanding? I don't care. Pass this bill.
The only possible way that this bill will ever become law is if it becomes widely known among the voting public at large. If the media did story after story on what an excellent and commonsense reform it truly would be (complete with the example of California), then the populace as a whole would overwhelmingly support it in true bipartisan fashion. Congress' approval rating is in single digits, remember.
The people will have to shame Congress into action, though. Because they must vote to attach this limit to their own pay. Which is not exactly in their self-interest, as can be plainly seen, but which is also the only constitutional way for it to happen.
So head on over to the Library of Congress' website, and do a search on either "S.1981" or "H.R.3643" (or "No Budget, No Pay Act") to see who has signed on as cosponsor of the bill. If your representatives or senators aren't on the list, then call them up and ask why they aren't! Because public pressure is the only way this is ever going to happen.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant