Why the House GOP's clever 'No Budget, No Pay' ploy is pointless

Republicans have found a way to pressure Senate Democrats into finally passing a budget. So what?

Would docking the pay of members of Congress actually get their attention?
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The sugar coating for many of the House Republicans who voted Wednesday, for all intents and purposes, to raise the debt ceiling was a provision they inserted to pressure the Democrat-controlled Senate to pass a budget resolution, something it hasn't done since 2009. The "No Budget, No Pay" measure, if it clears the Senate, will withhold the paychecks of all lawmakers in whichever chamber of Congress doesn't pass a budget by April 15, as required under the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act. "All told, the Senate Democrats received a total of $46 million in compensation since they last passed a budget," calculates Joel Gehrke at The Washington Examiner. If you accept that 40 cents of every dollar spent by the government since 2009 was borrowed, that means about $19 million of that sum was added to the national debt "to pay the Senate Democrats who refused to pass the budget."

"'No Budget, No Pay' is a no-brainer," says John Avlon at CNN. For most of us, "if you don't get the job done at work, you won't get paid." Congress needs play by that rule, too. Budget resolutions aren't binding, but "without a budget, it becomes difficult for government to make long-term spending decisions that affect us all."

Time and time again in this divided, dysfunctional Congress, we have seen partisan gridlock fall away only when members' self-interest is at stake. That's why we see the flurry of activity at the end of the year, when members of Congress want to get home for the holidays. Docking their pay would get their attention and focus their mind.... If patriotic conscience can't compel Congress to work together, maybe requiring them to have some personal skin in the game will inspire them to do their job. [CNN]

It's easy to explain why Senate Democrats haven't passed a budget in almost four years, though, says Rachel Weiner at The Washington Post: They don't have to. Spending is determined by appropriations bills, not the budget, and while the upper chamber is "legally required to pass a budget, there is no penalty for not doing so." But it's also pretty clear why House Republicans — who have passed controversial budget resolutions — want to pressure the Senate into action.

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In the Senate, proposing a budget gives Republicans an opportunity to attach amendments that would put political pressure on moderate and conservative Democrats.... By not introducing a budget, Democrats can keep their names off plans that detail high spending and high deficits. Meanwhile, they can attack House Republicans for their controversial budget plans. (See Ryan, Paul.) That was an especially attractive option for Democrats in the election years of 2010 and 2012. [Washington Post]

Or as Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) tells The New York Times, House Republicans "have a budget that's described as draconian, that decimates this program or that. They have a phrase, 'balanced approach'.... I'm tired of debating against a phrase." Now, the Democrats have to put their mouths where their money is. "It's annoying that we have to trade a short-term extension of the debt ceiling in exchange for getting the Democrats to do their jobs," says Moe Lane at RedState. "Always having to be the adults in the room gets old, fast," but "tactically speaking, the GOP won this one, fair and square."

"Senate Democrats deserve scorn aplenty for not passing a budget resolution," says Jon Healy at The Los Angeles Times. But "this little dagger" from the House GOP seems pretty pointless.

If the House really wanted to start the ball rolling on turning Medicaid into block grants, changing Medicare into a premium subsidy program, or shoring up Social Security for the long term, it could start the hard work of introducing bills, holding hearings on them, perfecting them with amendments and passing them. But it hasn't. Persuading the Senate to pass a budget resolution won't bring the two sides any closer to enacting a plan to solve Washington's long-term fiscal problems. And if the Senate produces a budget, chances are the House GOP will wonder why it was so eager to see it. [Los Angeles Times]

Besides, while there's no question that for most of us, losing a $174,000 annual paycheck would hurt, as Alex Pareene points out at Salon, it's doubtful it would "scare all the millionaires in the Senate into action." And "No Budget, No Pay" is misleading, since it wouldn't actually cut the pay of anyone — the 27th Amendment forbids any law "varying the compensation for the services of Senators and Representatives" to "take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened." To get around that, the bill would put senators' salaries into escrow until they pass a budget, or the 113th Congress ends in 2015. "The only way to enforce a No Pay rule would be to pass it now and make it apply to the 114th Congress," says David Weigel at Slate.

The final flaw in the GOP's otherwise clever plan: Senate Democrats are actually eager to pass a budget this year, explain's The Washington Post's Weiner:

It's a chance to reopen a debate over tax increases that Republicans insist ended with the "fiscal cliff" deal. A budget cannot be filibustered, and it opens the way to deficit reduction via reconciliation. If language is included in the budget resolution that directs a congressional committee to meet certain spending or tax targets, then the resulting bill is also protected from filibuster. "There's going to have to be some spending cuts, and those will be negotiated," [Sen. Chuck] Schumer told the Post. "But doing a budget is the best way for us to get revenues." [Washington Post]

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