The idea is clear: If Congress does not enact a budget and the appropriations bills that are a core responsibility of Congress by the beginning of the fiscal year, Members would have their pay shut off until the budget is completed. To be sure, the failure to pass budgets or spending bills on time or at all is an embarrassment to Congress. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who first raised the idea, is (as I wrote just last week) one of the best and brightest lawmakers we have, and his motives are good ones.
But the fact is that individual lawmakers have little control over budgets and spending bills. The failure to act on them is often more reflective of larger dynamics than of the accumulation of individual votes across party lines to pass a budget through the House and Senate or get spending bills reconciled between the chambers.
I don’t believe much in collective punishment. I like even less the idea that wealthy lawmakers could hold their less well-to-do colleagues hostage, or that we would pile on even more incentives for the wealthy to run and fewer for others to take on the burden.
Nor do I like the idea that grenade-throwing ideological crusaders could use this kind of punishment for their own purposes — one can imagine what additional mischief a Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, could devise if he had the ability to throw a wrench in Congress’ works and stick it to upper-middle-class lawmakers he didn’t like.
But there is another, larger reason I don’t like “no budget, no pay.”
To me it is pandering of the worst sort, playing to voters’ worst instincts about Congress.
The skepticism Americans feel about Congress goes back to the beginning and is ingrained in our culture; satirists and comedians from Mark Twain to Will Rogers to Jay Leno have exploited it to the hilt.
But skepticism has degenerated into a corrosive and dangerous cynicism and anger. Cutting lawmakers’ pay, trashing Congress for pay raises, howling about presumed perks like a five-star dining room, a lavish beauty salon, a posh gym, all free and paid for by taxpayers (and all wrong, of course) fan the flames in a dangerous way. But they are oh so easy to do.
Given the fact that campaigns for Congress are now focused on trashing the character and integrity of the candidates, with the mud level rising after Citizens United, and given the punishing lives Members of Congress lead, it is a wonder now that we get any serious, problem-solving individuals to take on the task.
“No budget, no pay” would drive some out of Congress and discourage others to run. I am delighted to find ways to improve the budget process. This is not one of them.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.