The House’s terrible idea

I don’t think much of the current crop of House Republicans. But I didn’t really expect them to stumble into something that looks very much like corruption.

In retreating on the debt limit but trying to find some face-saving gimmick, the Republican caucus has settled on trying to force the Senate to pass a budget resolution. Whatever you think of that — and I think that the Senate should do so, but it’s hardly a big deal that it hasn’t — the mechanism the House has picked is a terrible one: Member pay should not be held hostage to specific legislative results.

The early fuss about the House’s plan to withhold paychecks if the Senate doesn’t pass a budget has focused on whether the plan would be unconstitutional, thanks to the 27th Amendment. It appears that the bill as currently proposed — placing members’ pay in escrow until their chamber of Congress passes a budget resolution or the end of the session of Congress, whichever comes first — may be constitutionally kosher. But it’s still terrible.

Why? Put aside the Senate for now, and think about the House — which would face the same restriction. The bill doesn’t require a final budget resolution to be adopted, just that each chamber passes one. No House-passed budget resolution, no pay, at least not until the end of 2014. But individual members don’t get to choose what the House will vote on; that’s the job of the leadership and the Budget Committee. By the time it gets to the House floor, members will have a choice of approving what the leadership wants — or being personally penalized.

In most instances, we have a word for giving legislators a personal stake in legislation: corruption.

And like most quid-pro-quo corruption situations, this would give legislators an incentive to vote on the basis of filling their own wallet rather than what they think is good for the nation or their districts. That’s just as true when the payoff is structured in the negative (a penalty if you don’t go along) as when it’s a positive payoff.

Given that budget resolutions aren’t binding even if they go into effect, and that no one seems to think that the two houses of Congress would actually try to negotiate a compromise if they do pass their separate budget resolutions — the whole thing is just for show — it’s hard to get too worked up about this scheme, however foolish it might be. But it really is a terrible precedent, and any rank-and-file Republicans in the House who are pushing for it should be ashamed of themselves. They’re simply transferring more influence to the leadership and promoting bad government.

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