WASHINGTON -- In an earlier era, a move like the one engineered by House GOP leaders to pass a "no budget, no pay" measure probably would have been stopped in its tracks.
But with Congress’ approval ratings in the gutter, House lawmakers pushed aside questions about fairness and constitutionality and tacked the idea on to an unpopular, must-pass measure to increase the government’s borrowing cap.
The measure temporarily would withhold pay from any member of the House or Senate whose chamber doesn’t pass a budget this year. The Senate is expected to approve it in the coming week, but only after leaders make clear they think "no budget, no pay" is rife with flaws and is not going to be repeated.
The proposal is before the Senate because the House breezed past objections that the idea is unconstitutional because it could "vary" the pay of lawmakers in violation of the 27th Amendment to the Constitution. The House ignored concerns that the measure is unfair to members who are in the minority and are powerless to determine whether a budget passes or not.
Nearly unmentioned was the prospect that withholding lawmakers’ pay favors wealthy members over those of more modest means and could, in theory, attract more affluent candidates better able to withstand having some of their $174,000 salary withheld.
"The last thing we want to do is to say to people running for Congress, ‘If you’re not a millionaire, don’t run because there’s no guarantee you’ll be paid,"’ said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
For these reasons and more, the idea went nowhere in the last congressional session. But it was embraced about a week ago by House GOP leaders such as Speaker John Boehner of Ohio as they struggled to avoid a potential market-crippling default on government obligations.
The proposal is a slap at the Democratic-controlled Senate, which hasn’t passed a budget since 2009. Republicans advanced the measure as a one-year experiment rather than a permanent law.
The logic behind "no budget, no pay" goes like this: Passing a budget is the core responsibility of Congress, so why should lawmakers get paid if they don’t do their main job?
"The hardworking people that I represent wouldn’t be paid if they didn’t show up and they didn’t do their job," said Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa. "And this place should operate no differently."
For Republicans, much of the appeal of the measure was that it was a rare opportunity to cram something down the Senate’s throat. Two years of polarizing battles over issues big and small have left little good will between the GOP-run House and the Democratic-controlled Senate.
In the Senate, traditionalists such as Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., opted to set aside their concerns and avoid the task of beating back such an irresistible message. Reid also welcomed the reprieve from a potential economy-rattling government debt crisis.
"The House Republicans had to add a gimmick or two to the bill, but I understand, we all understand," Reid told reporters. "The tea party plays a big part in what goes on in the House and they need a gimmick or two to get things done over there. But to spare the middle class another knock-down, drag-out fight we are going to ... get it out of here as quickly as we can."
Reid’s announcement came hours after the incoming chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., issued a statement saying the committee would produce a budget for the first time since 2009. The four years without one caused much frustration for Republicans and embarrassment for junior Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a co-sponsor of "no budget, no pay."
Democrats said "no budget, no pay" had nothing to do with the decision to move forward with a budget. Republicans weren’t convinced. Murray’s earlier statements on the chances of Democrats’ moving ahead on a budget were noncommittal.
With congressional control divided, members of both parties have reason to chafe at "no budget, no pay."
For starters, the measure makes members of the minority party in House or Senate dependent on the majority to determine whether they get paid on time. Passing a congressional budget is typically a party-line exercise.
Then, of course, the measure puts a far greater burden on the relatively few people in Congress of modest means. For some lawmakers, the $174,000 congressional salary is barely enough to get by on, especially if a spouse doesn’t work and the family maintains a residence in the Washington area in addition to back home.
"I don’t know that it’s really fair to members that do not have significant means and have no control over whether a budget is brought to the floor or not," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who noted she fits into that category. "Having said that, if this works it will have been shown to be a good technique."
It also has the potential to give wealthier members an advantage during budget debates because it would make it easier them to refuse to go along with a budget they don’t like or make greater demands during the course of budget debates in exchange for their vote.
Then there’s the question of constitutionality.
The 27th Amendment to the Constitution states that no law "varying the compensation" of members of Congress can take effect until an election has passed.
To deal with that problem, the measure doesn’t deny pay. Rather, it withholds the salaries of members hit by "no budget, no pay," and would release the money on the last day of the congressional term in January of 2015.
Some legal scholars say that approach is in sufficient.
"Receiving $1,000 today is obviously worth more than receiving that same dollar amount at some time in the future," said Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe. "It follows that ‘varying’ the timing of compensation is just another way of ‘varying the compensation itself,’ which is what the 27th Amendment expressly forbids."
One of the ironies is that it’s seems House Republicans driving "no budget, no pay" probably will struggle much more than Senate Democrats to pass it. Boehner is promising that, unlike two earlier GOP budgets, this one will come to balance by the end of the decade, which could force Republicans to cut Medicare much more deeply than they have sought to do in the past.
Congressional budget resolutions are nonbinding measures that usually sound more important than they really are. Often they’re not followed up with binding legislation. While the House has passed budget plans, it failed last year to address several important pieces of bipartisan legislation that passed the Senate.
"As I recall, we passed a farm bill last year ... and they never found time to vote on it," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "We passed the Violence Against Women Act; they never found time to vote on it. I think they maybe ought to demonstrate they’re willing to vote before they tell us how to vote."