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Lawmaker Pay Again in Play as Democrats Tie Paychecks to Debt Limit

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
Boxer, the Democrats’ chief deputy whip, said her measure requiring lawmaker salaries to be suspended if the government is unable to meet obligations could be brought up as a stand-alone proposal or as an amendment to unrelated legislation.

Democrats in the Senate and House are pushing proposals to suspend lawmaker pay if Congress does not authorize a higher debt limit when the need arrives this fall.

In what amounts to a kind of turnabout on the Republican “no budget, no pay” measure the GOP aimed at Senate Democrats this year, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington said they want member pay halted when the government is unable to meet is financial obligations.

“Our legislation would help prevent a catastrophic default by putting pressure on lawmakers to do the right thing and honor our nation’s financial obligations,” Boxer said Wednesday.

The Boxer-McDermott plan comes as Republicans are talking more openly about how they plan to use the need to raise federal borrowing authority to exact spending concessions from Democrats, suggesting a replay of a 2011 showdown that roiled financial markets and spawned the deficit reduction law (PL 112-25) that includes the sequester. Speaker John A. Boehner on Wednesday revived a major demand from that debate, saying he wants “cuts and reforms” in entitlement spending equivalent to the level of the increase in the debt limit.

The sharp words back and forth are growing even as the urgency on the debt limit, and the deficit, has diminished.

The Treasury Department has used what it calls “extraordinary measures” to put off the need for new borrowing since a suspension of the debt limit expired May 19. The Congressional Budget Office estimates new borrowing authority will be needed by October or November, but Republicans and Democrats both are seeking to maintain some urgency about the issue as they jockey for political position ahead of a bigger showdown.

The House on May 9 passed a payment “prioritization” bill (HR 807) aimed at calming financial markets and benefits recipients while restricting leverage for Democrats. It would require the Treasury Department to set priorities for federal payments, and to put payment of Social Security benefits and interest and principal on government bonds at the front of the line.

It, too, would bar official compensation for members of Congress until the debt limit is increased.

Senior Democrats are offering several alternatives to that House-passed payment proposal, effectively adopting the point Republicans made on budget resolutions by arguing that lawmakers would be ignoring their responsibilities by refusing to raise the debt limit. It would cut off member salaries in the event of a prolonged stalemate on efforts to increase borrowing authority.

Boxer, the Democrats’ chief deputy whip, said her measure requiring lawmaker salaries to be suspended if the government is unable to meet obligations could be brought up as a stand-alone proposal or as an amendment to unrelated legislation.

Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee said he also is trying to build support for his own proposal (HR 1884) to put off payment of lawmaker salaries when the debt limit is reached until all other government obligations are fulfilled.

The administration and senior Democrats have made clear they oppose the House bill and disagree with the idea of trying to limit government obligations that will be honored in the event of a debt limit stalemate. Democrats say the GOP measure leaves out too many important priorities, from payments owed to contractors to Medicare and veterans benefits.

Boxer and McDermott also say the House measure is legally flawed because it would prohibit payment of lawmaker salaries, meaning that they might not be restored at the end of the 113th Congress. “It is not constitutional,” McDermott said, referring to a provision in the Constitution that requires an intervening election before a law can take effect to cut off or reduce the salaries of lawmakers.

The Boxer proposal would funnel member salaries into an escrow account when the government is unable to pay its bill. The salaries would be released to members when the debt limit is increased or when the 113th Congress ends.

The proposal to put member salaries in escrow until the end of the 113th Congress is similar to a provision in the debt limit suspension (PL 113-3) that expired May 19, when the debt limit was reset to just less than $16.7 trillion. The law provided for suspending member salaries if the two chambers failed to adopt fiscal 2014 budget resolutions by April 15.

The House and Senate both complied with the requirements of that law by adopting their own fiscal 2014 blueprints (H Con Res 25, S Con Res 8) in March.

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