Let me begin by revisiting the “no budget, no pay” idea. It originated with Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., one of the most thoughtful and conscientious members of the House, a man who came back for a second tour in the chamber determined to speak truth to power. He has had some very good ideas to overhaul Congress. This is not one of them.
“No budget, no pay” provides collective punishment for actions that are beyond the control of individual members of Congress. It plays to the worst instincts of voters, throwing red meat to those who have contempt for Congress and their lawmakers. And it gives independently wealthy legislators who don’t need their pay tremendous leverage over those who depend on it.
When the group No Labels was putting together its overhaul package, which includes many commendable elements, I argued strenuously with its leaders not to include a “no budget, no pay” provision, saying that to do so would be to pander. They instead made it their centerpiece and sent out a crowing, and cringe-worthy, fundraising email after the House Republicans included it in their debt limit extension.
There is no doubt that the charge that the Senate has not produced a budget in three years has resonated with many voters; I hear it over and over again from both Republican partisans and independents. I happen to agree with former Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota that the charge is false and that the Budget Control Act is a budget that passed the Senate in 2011 and is more like a budget resolution on steroids because it is a law, not a resolution.
That brings us to the next point. Having a budget is nice, but not much more than that. In general, it does not have all that much force. A congressional budget does not require a presidential signature and, absent a set of reconciliation instructions, is far from the be-all and end-all of congressional power or responsibility. The fact is that going back to 1990, at least, the major actions on the budget, the ones taken to keep deficits under control, have been done not through the regular order of the budget process but through extraordinary negotiations that include the White House and congressional leaders. That was true with the Andrews Air Force Base negotiations in 1990, when the politics were dramatically less dysfunctional than those we have faced in the Obama years. Over the past three years, any Senate budget resolution would have been dead on arrival in the House.