The Republican House just scored a political victory. While meaningless in financial fact, they successfully co-opted a dandy slogan -- which may have real political consequences for Senate Democrats -- and they also managed to pull the wool over the eyes of a large portion of the mainstream media while doing so. Which, as I said, has to be chalked up as a big political victory for the House Republicans.
I'm speaking of the "No Budget, No Pay" provision in the short-term debt ceiling hike the House just passed. First and foremost, it will not actually "cut" the pay of anyone. Period. It just won't. It should rightly be called the "No Budgetary Political Posturing... Um, Then We'll Hold Your Pay For Awhile" provision -- this is where the "co-opting" of the slogan comes in. The political victory is that the House will likely shame Harry Reid's Democratic Senate into actually producing a budget bill this year. More on this in a moment.
First, though, the part most of the media is missing: there actually is a "No Budget, No Pay Act" proposal that's been floating around Washington for a while, now. It would actually do what it says it would do -- it lives up to the slogan, in other words. If the federal budget and appropriations bills are not in place when the fiscal year starts, then Congress does not get paid until that happens. Simple concept. Lawmakers are sent to the Capitol to do many things, but one of the first and foremost of these responsibilities is to set the federal budget each and every year. If they don't accomplish this main part of their job description, then their salary gets cut off. There are two important parts of this to focus on. One, all the budget and appropriation bills must pass through both houses of Congress. Agreement must be reached, or no pay. Two, any lost pay cannot be retroactively awarded. Once the pay is lost, it is lost forever.
These are the two reasons why the House Republicans just pulled a snow job on the media, for the most part. Because neither is true for what just passed. Not even close. In the first place, the House bill (as I understand it, I have yet to read the whole thing, so any mistakes in interpretation are mine) only applies to the budgetary document that is supposed to pass in the Spring. This is a "framework" and doesn't actually fund the government at all. While called a "budget" it is no more than a suggestion -- the real business of funding the government happens later in the year with the multiple "appropriations" bills. So focusing on the "budget" document is rather meaningless without addressing the second part as well.
The second reason the House passed nothing more than smoke and mirrors is that to get paid, the two houses merely have to pass their own budget bill -- which does not have to be reconciled with the other house. This means all the tough choices are postponed. They don't have to actually agree on anything -- the House will pass an ultra-Republican "budget" and the Senate will pass whatever it can get five Republicans on board with, and everyone gets paid -- even before a conference committee even meets to discuss the differences. Again, more on the political implications of this in a bit.
But the whopping big reason this whole thing is a farce is that nobody loses a single dollar of pay, no matter what happens. Yes, you read that right. Nobody's pay is "cut" by even one thin dime. This, more than anything else, shows the gimmick nature of this political ploy. If budgets aren't passed, then lawmakers' pay gets put into an "escrow" account. If a budget isn't passed for the entire two-year term of the current Congress, then everybody still gets their full salary paid to them from the escrow account on the last day of the term. In other words, no matter what happens politically or legislatively, everyone still gets paid. The worst that can happen is their money will be withheld for a period of time.
To be fair, this is due to the demands of the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, which states (in full): "No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened." The story of the ratification of this amendment is one of the most hilarious bits of American history of all time, in fact, since it was proposed in 1789 (as one of twelve amendments, ten of which became the Bill of Rights), but not ratified until 1992 -- largely as the result of the efforts of a college student who got a "C" on a paper, and was annoyed by his low grade. As I said, you can't make this stuff up -- it's truly a fascinating story.
Trivia aside, however, what the amendment means is that no Congress can effectively vote to change -- in any way -- their own pay. They can vote on what the next Congress will be paid, but not themselves. Because House Republicans were looking for action in the next couple of months, this was constitutionally not possible (the real "No Budget, No Pay Act" does indeed specify that the rule won't take effect until the next Congress convenes, making it constitutional and legitimate). So they came up with their political gimmick, to bamboozle the public into believing it would, in fact, cut Congress' pay. It does not.
Which is where we get into the grand game of politics. A Republican talking point, for the past few years, has been to complain that "the Senate hasn't passed a budget in (insert time period)." Sometimes this is given as "X years" and sometimes it's even given in days, or on a countdown clock. This is a valid political complaint, in fact. I've even criticized Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats for failing this basic duty myself, on multiple occasions.
In the normal times-gone-by, budgets were passed by both houses of Congress. Finagling over details happened in conference committees. Sometimes, an agreement was hammered out, and a real budget (with appropriations) passed. Sometimes, it wasn't, and "continuing resolutions" were passed which just punted the whole problem to the next calendar year. For the past two years, House Republicans did indeed pass a budget document (but not all the appropriations bills, mind you). Paul Ryan wrote a bill, and the House passed it -- which exposed them to a whole lot of political vulnerability on the campaign trail from Democrats. Senate Democrats did not. They chose, instead, to avoid the political pitfalls altogether.
This chickening-out by the Senate meant that Republicans couldn't slam them on the campaign trail for their votes for unpopular things in the budget. But that's another way of defining political cowardice, at least in my book. Stand up for what you believe! Pass a budget to show how different Democrats' priorities are than the House Republicans -- that would be political bravery.
Which is where the House Republicans' political victory becomes apparent. Because their "No Budgetary Political Posturing... Um, Then We'll Hold Your Pay For Awhile" provision is actually going to change things. Harry Reid has now announced that, this year, the Senate will indeed pass at least the budget bill (remember, none of this fight yet concerns the actual appropriations bills). That is indeed a political victory for the House Republicans. They structured their provision so that members of either house aren't faced with the escrow situation if their house passes a budget bill on its own. It doesn't have to be reconciled, in other words, with the other house.
Which means that the House of Representatives is -- so far, successfully -- forcing the Senate to accept the escrow accounts only for the Senate if they don't act. This is a monumental coup, in the eternal power struggle between the two legislative chambers. The House, in plain language, is shaming the Senate to act on the issue -- at very little cost to itself (remember, the House has indeed passed budgets the past two years).
My hope is that the whole thing backfires on everybody in Congress. My hope is that the Republicans' use of the "No Budget, No Pay" slogan will cause an outcry when the public realizes it is nothing more than smoke and mirrors (if any lawmaker's pay actually winds up in an escrow account, the media will likely wake up and report the flim-flam nature of the arrangement). Over the coming months and years, my hope is that the issue rises in prominence in the public's mind, until they start demanding a real "No Budget, No Pay Act" complete with ironclad penalties for both houses not agreeing to the same budget. As I've said before, California previously passed such a law, and it has worked wonders with our state's budgetary process. It could easily have the potential to do the same on the national level. Even if this happens immediately, no pay will be cut in Congress until 2015 (the start of the next Congress, after an intervening election in 2014), but the idea is still a sound one.
Democrats -- smart ones, at any rate -- will pounce on this opportunity to get out in front of the issue with the public. They should be out there right now saying: "The so-called 'no budget, no pay' provision the House passed is silly, because it does nothing of the kind. It's a sham wrapped in a gimmick. However, I fully support a real 'No Budget, No Pay Act' with real financial consequences for Congress not doing their basic job for the American people, each and every year."
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant