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Paycheck Politics Could Be Here to Stay

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Lungren said the “no budget, no pay” measure could hurt the less wealthy members of Congress.

Most opposing Democrats didn’t discuss the “no budget, no pay” element, but if they did, they dismissed it as a gimmick. They said the phrase was a misnomer: Lawmakers would have their paychecks held in escrow until the end of the Congress, not withheld entirely. And they questioned its legality because the 27th Amendment prohibits Congress from changing member pay until an intervening election has passed.

A few Democrats said it set a troubling precedent in that some members would feel compelled to vote for any budget, even one they disagreed with, for fear of not getting paid.

Even fewer expressed concern for the other precedent the legislation could set: The constant fear that a sudden lapse in paychecks could prompt missed payments on mortgages, credit card bills and children’s tuitions.

Many House members argued that, for them, the “no budget, no pay” component of the debt limit bill was irrelevant, because they believed the House would always pass a budget. Supporters added it was really intended for put fire under the feet of senators, and that this pressure had succeeded. On Wednesday, the same day the House was passing its legislation, Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., announced that her panel would begin devising a budget.

Not everyone is insensitive to members’ personal financial considerations. Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., who returns 15 percent of his salary each year to the Treasury for the purposes of debt reduction, told CQ Roll Call last year that he didn’t think his choice to do so should be applied across the board.

“I’ve never called for a decrease in compensation for members of Congress,” Rigell said. “Some of our colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, live in their offices because of the financial cost of having two residences. $174,000 is a lot of money, but I don’t think it’s right for me to say that everybody needs to give back.”

On Wednesday, Rigell recalled that statement, but said it wasn’t in conflict with his vote for the debt limit bill: “I can look any member in the eye and say to them that I have complete confidence that their compensation would not be affected by this.”

Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., agreed his peers shouldn’t worry about losing pay, while acknowledging it would be unfortunate if it did come to pass: “It could create some unintended hardships, but coming up with a budget  . . .  that’s not a heavy lift. That is a responsibility that we have.”

Among the members who said they would without a doubt feel hardship is Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.

“There are members in this body who are fabulously wealthy, and the little money that they pay us each year is nothing to them,” Ellison said. “But what about the middle- and working-class people? What about the people who were public defenders, like me? And do I do what’s right for my country  . . .  or do I vote a certain way so I can get a check? It’s immoral.”

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