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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.

Longtime Rep. Dan Lungren lost re-election last year in part because of redistricting that favored Democrats. But the California Republican said it didn’t help that his Democratic challenger, current Rep. Ami Bera, campaigned on the promise to support a bill known as “no budget, no pay” while a deluge of TV ads charged Lungren with blocking the very same measure.

“They said I was the one who singularly stopped that from going forward,” said Lungren, who was chairman of the House Administration Committee, the panel of jurisdiction.

But Lungren was unapologetic. “If you were to pass [it], one of these young members with young families who depend on their salaries, they’d get hurt.  . . .  Look at the 60 to 80 members who live in their offices in this place. That’s horrendous,” Lungren said. “I’ve seen what members go through, and they’re afraid to say it.”

On Wednesday, with Bera voting yes, the House passed legislation to suspend the debt limit through May 18. It would also suspend lawmakers’ salaries if they don’t pass an annual budget by April 15, the main thrust of the No Budget, No Pay Act Lungren fought in the 112th Congress.

Now with the Senate and White House amenable to the measure, the consequences Lungren feared for his former colleagues are becoming real. And although this particular legislation is relegated to the budget, the threat of Congress voting to withhold pay for lack of action on any piece of legislation — whether it be defense authorization, appropriations bills or anything else someone deems worthy — is all the more real, too. Pandora’s box is open.

The “no budget, no pay” concept originated with Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., who quickly picked up a grass-roots following and a Senate partner in Dean Heller, R-Nev. Cooper’s bill garnered 79 co-sponsors along a political spectrum of tea party Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats, but leadership didn’t pay much attention until last week at the House Republican retreat in Williamsburg, Va.

It was there that a working group led by Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., suggested that any debt limit bill include Cooper’s “no budget, no pay” language.

“It’s no secret that Paul Ryan and I are good friends,” Cooper told CQ Roll Call, “and he remembered me having mentioned this to him as a good reform that both parties should be able to get behind.

“[Republicans] were looking for a way to save face as they supported a debt ceiling extension, and they had to have a very powerful sweetener,” Cooper continued. “This is a bill that is so popular that its title sells itself.”

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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