Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Should Strike While The Iron Is Hot And Re-Introduce The "No Budget, No Pay Act"

[ Posted Thursday, December 27th, 2018 – 17:53 UTC ]

This is going to be nothing more than a glorified re-run (or "clip show") sort of column, because I've made this argument so many times before in the past, and nothing about the argument has really changed. What has changed (for the better) is that this is just about the best possible time politically to move such an argument to center stage.

I was inspired to write again about this subject again because of a tweet by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

It's completely unacceptable that members of Congress can force a government shutdown on partisan lines & then have Congressional salaries exempt from that decision.

Have some integrity.

In what I think is the first time I've ever used Twitter to directly communicate with an elected official (I'm still pretty passive, Twitter-wise), I responded back to her with a few links to previous columns:

Don't furlough them, STOP the paychecks. "No Budget, No Pay" works great in California! --

You're right, we need this on the federal level too. Please revive Bruce Braley's "No Budget, No Pay Act" in next Congress... --

The more I think about this, the better an idea it sounds. When Congress reconvenes in January, the government is likely to still be partially shut down. The American public is sick and tired of this particular political tactic, and politicians really should be getting leery of it as well, since it has never actually achieved the goals set out by the hostage-takers. As leverage, shutting the government down seems to be pretty useless and self-defeating. The party pushing the shutdown almost always gets the lion's share of the blame from the public, which is exactly how this one is playing out as well. President Donald Trump pretty much assured this would happen when he pre-emptively announced to the cameras that he and he alone would be responsible for shutting the government down, over a week before it happened. The public has followed through, and largely blames Trump and his party for the current mess. As they should.

Democrats are likely up to this challenge, of course. They'll pass a budget bill in record time after convening the new Congress in January, and place it on Trump's desk. It will not have any funding for his border wall, of course. Trump may go ahead and veto it, which will put the ball in the congressional Republicans' court. If enough of them join with the Democrats, then Congress will be able to override this veto and get the paychecks moving once again. If they don't, then the government will remain shut down and the Democrats will move on to the rest of their agenda. How long it all takes to play out is still an open question, but it's easy to see how it'll play out: Trump won't get what he wants, and he will get the blame.

But the smartest thing for Democrats to do would be to make the case to the American public that (1) things are going to be different now that Democrats control the House once again, and (2) Democrats have a dandy idea that could solve this problem for the long term. The idea is that whenever any government shutdown happens -- whenever any budget is not in place on time, in other words -- then all members of Congress forfeit their pay until a budget is passed.

This idea would be wildly popular with the public, since it directly punishes those who are responsible for the hostage-taking tactic that has sadly become almost normal, at this point. This will hit them in their pocketbook, which they will have deserved. After all, why should Congress continue to get paid when they're responsible for hundreds of thousands of hardworking families having to face financial hardship for no other reason than politics?

I've written about this problem many times over the years, even before "budget shutdowns" became a regular thing. Way back in 2007, I proposed the idea:

This is pathetic. Passing a budget is the number one responsibility of everyone in Congress. If "Member of Congress" had a job description, this would be the first item on the list. And yet they fail, year after year, to get it done in a timely manner. This means they are failing to perform one of the key functions of their job.

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.

No problem.

Simple, right? But then a funny thing happened -- California passed this innovation at the state level, because California was having the same problem (not getting budgets done on time), but unlike the federal government California couldn't just use accounting tricks to paper over the problem. They paid state workers with "I.O.U." notices, and the banks went along with it for a few weeks. But then weeks turned into months one year, and the citizens reacted at the ballot box. Here's how this new law worked out the first year it was implemented. The budget was, of course, late. The legislature tried to do a "smoke and mirrors" budget but the state comptroller (the guy who signs the checks) and the state supreme court agreed that it was not a real budget -- so legislators' pay started getting docked:

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 other words, they tested it, they suffered, and then they sat down and passed a budget. The idea was proposed the next year at the national level, for Congress. Here's what one of the sponsors of the "No Budget, No Pay Act" had to say about it at the time:

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."

The bill, obviously, didn't pass. But the text of it is still sitting around somewhere, ready to be dusted off and reintroduced on January third. Meanwhile, back in California, I checked in a few years later to report on how things were working under the new law:

By 2012, the legislators had learned their lesson. Here's a quick timeline of California's budgetary history, right up to yesterday:

  • 1980 onward -- five budgets passed on time out of 30
  • 2008 -- budget is 100 days late
  • 2011 -- (first year under Prop. 25) after pay is cut off, budget passes 12 days late
  • 2012 -- budget passes on time
  • 2013 -- budget passes on time (a day early, in fact)
  • 2014 -- budget passes on time (happy Fathers' Day!).

The record is clear. The new law works wonders. Now, some might argue that it's a lot easier to pass a budget when there's a whopping big surplus to spend (as is the case this year). This is no doubt true, and will likely be the reason Jerry Brown will be elected for an unprecedented fourth term as governor this November. But the law has already worked in years with deficits, and my guess is that it will do so again in the future.

Jerry Brown was indeed re-elected, although how much cleaning up the budget had to do with it is anyone's guess. But since I wrote that four years ago, each and every California budget has passed on time. It's now no longer even a big news story, it's just routine. That is an enormous change, folks.

In the same article, I laid out the differences such a law would face in Congress on a national level:

The barriers to getting a law passed to cover the paychecks of the United States Congress are a lot higher than they were in California, though. To begin with, there are no voter ballot initiatives at the federal level. Which means that it'd be up to Congress itself to vote on killing their own paychecks -- a rather far-fetched idea, it might seem. Added to this is the complication of the Constitution, which states that changes in lawmakers' pay must have an intervening congressional election before they can take place (if Congress passed the law this year and [President Barack] Obama signed it, it could not constitutionally take effect until the 2015 budget season, for instance).

What is rather unexpected is that the Tea Party Republicans are the ones who have, in recent years, attempted to get some sort of "no budget, no pay" bill passed. Some have been watered-down (pay would go into escrow until the budget passed, but would be paid out afterwards rather than forfeited, for instance), but it's still interesting to see which side of the aisle has even given the idea lip service. Democrats, if they were smart, would realize how well the law is working in California, and get behind the idea on a federal level as a populist measure to use in their campaigns.

There's an interesting twist on today's political situation -- the Tea Partiers were in favor of such a law, and not too long ago. That would make for some interesting cross-border support, if they remained consistent now that Democrats were the ones pushing the idea, wouldn't it?

Even without the Tea Partiers' overt support, the timing for Democrats to make this a huge honking big deal right now could not be better, really. Which is why I sent my first tweet directed to a politician this week. I hope Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez decides to place this front and center of the incoming Democratic House. I hope Nancy Pelosi sees the wisdom of making a big stink about this right now.

It would force the Republicans in Congress to address not just the wall funding but also the larger concept of having these stupid government shutdowns in the first place. It's a pretty indefensible position that Congress should be paid while other federal workers aren't getting their paychecks because of the inaction of Congress. And yet that'd be the position Republicans would be backed into if Democrats made a large early push to pass such a law.

They may attempt arguments against such a proposal. "Only legislators who rely on their paychecks would be affected -- the wealthy members of Congress wouldn't care," for instance. This argument was tried in California, but it is not true. No matter which party is being intransigent, there are members of that party of modest means in the legislature. So somebody's ox always gets gored on your team -- which means pressure to get the budget done from within your ranks.

The easy answer to all such arguments against this scheme is: "But that's not what happened in California when they passed this law -- in fact, the law has worked perfectly every year since, and all their budgets now pass on time, period."

The politics of the situation could not be better for Democrats, with an ongoing budget shutdown as a prime example of why Congress should not be drawing their paychecks. The time is right. If Democrats realize it, they could actually see such a law pass. The public would be just about universally behind such an action, it almost goes without saying. The law wouldn't make it impossible to shut the government down (for those who still see it as a viable political tactic), but it would mean that it would hit Congress members in their own pockets. And who could be against that? So I do hope Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez takes this and runs with it, because there is never going to be a better time to do so.

No budget? No pay. Period.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


10 Comments on “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Should Strike While The Iron Is Hot And Re-Introduce The "No Budget, No Pay Act"”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    i'm not sure if passing a budget is required to fund the government. but one thing is certain, the coast guard protecting our maritime borders shouldn't have their pay withheld while the members of congress who did the damage keep drawing their own paychecks as if nothing had happened.

  2. [2] 
    TheStig wrote:

    As much as I like the rationale of No Budget No Pay I think it would violate the 27th amendment.

  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    as i understand the text, it would work just fine with the 27th, it just couldn't take effect until the next congress.

  4. [4] 
    TheStig wrote:


    I framed that badly. The 27th says pay changes can only become effective after an intervening election - which results in at least a 2 yr lag between the infraction and the proposed collective punishment. Freshman Reps would be punished for the sins of their predecessors. There is already too much gamemanship in Congress and between Congress and President.

  5. [5] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    it would not be punitive, it would be preventative.

  6. [6] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    personally, i think it makes more sense to tie the top government salaries to shutdowns rather than budgets, but it's in effect the same principle - no congress or president should be able to neglect their responsibility to pay other public servants while continuing to pay themselves.

  7. [7] 
    TheStig wrote:

    I just don't see the Courts allowing a simple legislative end run.

    "No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened." - 27th Amendment

    Maybe the California Constitution has no equivalent to the 27th, but the US Constitution plainly says it takes 2 years before a pay change can take effect. The same time lag it takes to throw a member or the House out of office at the polling place.

    I'm not even sure throwing them out of office actually cuts a members probably actually enhances it...lobbying generally pays better than elected office.

  8. [8] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    ah, now i see what you mean. i think any reasonable reading of the text of the 27th means that the law can't start working until the next congress, not that the pay change can't occur immediately when the shutdown takes effect.

  9. [9] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    no pie, no pay. that's a much better strategy than either yours or CW's, because pie is more popular and has its own frequently updated website, complete with tasty recipes. you can find out more by clicking the link in my name.

  10. [10] 
    TheStig wrote:

    I checked out the pie website....not bad at all. Just one thing...why is the pie magazine published quarterly? They should publish every 3.14.... months.

Comments for this article are closed.