Congress could be made to pay for its budget failures

Reporter March 12, 2012

“The congressional budget process is broken.”

It’s a lament heard from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in recent years, as the House and Senate have been increasingly unable to agree on an annual spending blueprint amid partisan bickering.

But is it broken enough that members will risk going broke to fix it?

That question, among others, will be entertained Wednesday at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on congressional reform proposals. The panel also plans to examine ideas for overhauling the nominations process for federal officials, as well as a perennial suggestion that Congress should shift from an annual budget process to a two-year cycle.

And if there’s no budget at all — that’s where the No Budget No Pay Act offered by Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) would come into play. The measure would stop all lawmakers’ paychecks if the two chambers haven’t agreed on a budget resolution by Oct. 1. Even if they do approve a spending blueprint after that date, they wouldn’t get any back pay.

In recent years, as the broader economy struggled, sentiment on Capitol Hill has turned firmly against boosting member pay. Lawmakers have not seen a salary increase since 2008, with rank-and-filers making $174,000 for the fourth straight year. Yet though numerous bills have circulated to cut that salary, none has advanced very far.

William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who helped develop the nonpartisan group No Labels’ “Make Congress Work” initiative, said No Budget No Pay was the only one of their 12 agenda items that must be implemented through legislation, rather than a rules change.

Heller, who will testify at Wednesday’s hearing, sees the committee session itself as evidence of momentum.

“The fact that it’s getting a hearing I think is a big plus,” Heller said in an interview. “There were a lot of people arguing that it’s a gimmick. It’s not a gimmick when it gets a hearing.”

Heller said his proposal had a gut-level political appeal, particularly in his home state, where the unemployment rate is 13 percent.

“People in Nevada understand that if Washington, D.C., isn’t doing their job, that’s one of the reasons they’re unemployed,” he said.

Members would have much lighter wallets if Heller’s law had been in place the last few years. The two chambers did not agree on a budget resolution in 2010 or 2011. In January, Republicans criticized Democratic leaders for the fact that it had been 1,000 days since April 29, 2009, when the Senate last passed a budget.

The House and Senate also failed to cut a deal on a budget in 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2006 — all of which, coincidentally enough, were election years.

Heller’s bill has three co-sponsors in the Senate, and a companion House bill has attracted 34 backers. The idea also has its critics.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) sees Heller’s bill as a distraction from the broader goal of agreeing on a far-reaching deficit-reduction plan.

“I want to go big,” Udall said. “We know what we need to do, so let’s go do it rather than come up with ideas that some would see as non-starters and don’t get us closer to that goal.”

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) wondered whether it made sense for the pay-cut bill to treat members who vote in favor of a budget deal the same as it treats those who vote against one. And Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said the measure could be unfair in other ways, given that some — but not all — members of Congress are extremely wealthy.

“It would put more pressure on those who are dependent on congressional salaries than those who are not, so in my opinion it’s not the right answer,” Cardin said.

Instead, Cardin has his own budget reform proposal that will also be a subject of Wednesday’s hearing. His bill would prevent the House and Senate from taking up legislation of any kind — budget-related or not — after April 15 if they have not approved a budget. The requirement could be waived in either chamber by a three-fifths majority.

“The concept here is you don’t go home. You stay in session, you can’t adjourn, you can’t take up other business,” Cardin said. “It does put teeth behind our deadlines.”

Both Cardin’s bill and Heller’s would be relevant this year, since Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) made clear last month that he would not bring a budget to the floor of his chamber in 2012. Yet even if Heller’s bill passed tomorrow it wouldn’t take effect until 2013, because lawmakers are permitted by the Constitution to adjust their pay only for future Congresses, not the current one.

Udall, for his part, thinks the Senate has more pressing matters to address.

“If we spend time on that bill,” Udall said, “it’s time we could spend on getting a budget.”

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